"A word to the wise to all the children of the twentieth century, whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics,
whether they crawl on hands and knees and wear diapers or walk with a cane and comb their beards.
There's a wondrous magic to Christmas, and there's a special power reserved for little people.
 In short, there's nothing mightier than the meek, and a merry Christmas to each and all."
~~ from
Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone-"Night of the Meek"

Hi all,

First off, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!  I hope this finds you all well, happy, and surrounded by love and blessings. 

At long last, after months of working at it, I finished my latest long form "assignment story": "Abide With Me."  It's well over 400 pages long so I don't expect anyone to read it and am very thankful to those who have (Hi!  Please don't sue me for eye strain!).  Our annual Christmas story picks up where "Abide" left off although I tried to write it in such a way that it would still make sense without someone having read "Abide."  Probably not as much sense... but I hope not completely confusing.

At the end of "Abide With Me," Andrew's assignment had been introduced to life in Dyeland.  Beyond the trauma he endured while being held as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Max Remus carries with him the scars of being raised by a negligent father with an absentee mother.  Unbeknownst to Max, his fellow soldier who spent those long, difficult months with him in captivity just happens to be an angel of death.  This is the story of how Max learns his beloved friend's true identity and how God can create a family out of the unlikeliest set of people. 

Because this story deals with the aftermath of Andrew's and Max's experience of war, I've made a donation in the group's honor to the Wounded Warrior Project.  This had been my plan since early December.  Then the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut happened.  So I split the donation and sent half to Newtown Youth and Family Services

That terrible tragedy is not acknowledged in this story.  It's not because I don't think it's important but because in the immediate aftermath of something like that, I can't bring myself to write about the related grief of fictional characters when there's so much real-life heartbreak.  But it was there in the background as I wrote this and lent an urgency to what I wanted to be the central theme of this story: family, love, and children are among God's greatest gifts.  May we never take any of our gifts for granted.

God bless and love,

 Home for Christmas

December 1st, 2012

Andrew watched, laughing, as several of his friends skated around the rink at Rockefeller Center... some more gracefully than others.  He wished he could join them but he felt no self pity as he sat and observed.  He could only look back at the last four months with no small amount of amazement and even more thankfulness.  Only a month before, he'd been a POW living in a hole in Afghanistan with only his assignment, Max, as company.  His contact with the outside world had been limited but, when it came, was reason to marvel at the Father's constancy and at the depth of His love.  There had been the shared dreams with JenniAnn every three weeks, a fulfillment of a promise God had made them both years before.  There had also been two brief but extremely cherished conversations with a woman named Badriya.... a woman who would later die because she'd loved Andrew and been unable to bear the sight of him suffering.  Even with those visits, Andrew had been so weakened, physically and spiritually, that at times it had been a struggle to hear his Father's voice or feel His love.

Now everything was changed.  Andrew was in the midst of a festive day of sight-seeing with his friends.  It was only the latest in a succession of quality time spent with them.  He had gone riding with C.J.  Yva and Sir Sven had taken him flying.  There had been sledding with Rose and cooking with Lady Beth.  Dancing with JenniAnn.  Playing music with Adam and the guys.  Cuddling in front of the fire with Lulu.  He was free and so was Max.  More than that, Max was happy.  Badriya was at peace, her spirit was free, and she was Home.  His Father's voice, which had never truly gone silent, was once again with Andrew as was the knowledge that, in his darkest moments in Afghanistan, Joshua had been with him and held his hand. 

With all those blessings, a wobbly ankle leftover from his time in captivity was nothing to complain about as far as Andrew was concerned.  Of course, the promise of cocoa also helped ease any disappointment he might have otherwise felt.

After weaving her way through the crowd surrounding the rink, JenniAnn settled beside the angel.  "Marshmallows for you," she said as she held out a cup, "and cinnamon for me.  Drink up!"

Andrew took a sip and sighed.  "Delicious.  Thank you, Laja.  Aren't you going to do any skating?"

The woman shook her head.  "I'd rather sit with you."  JenniAnn took a long sip of her cocoa then looked up at the angel.  "Actually... I was hoping to talk to you about something.  We haven't had much time alone since... since Wednesday morning and there's something..."

The look on her face told Andrew it was a fairly serious matter.  He took her free hand in his.  "What is it, Laja?" 

"Well... I know you already know about how Max called me in a panic Wednesday night cause he was worried about you.  And then we showed him... well, home.  But we didn't tell him..."  As a gaggle of teenagers passed by, JenniAnn wished she'd broached the subject somewhere more private but it was too late now.  If she stopped she might lose her nerve and never start again.

"About my full-time occupation?" Andrew helped, his eyes twinkling.

JenniAnn laughed.  "Yes... that." 

"You know I'm completely behind your decision to bring Max home, Laja.  I mean... look at him."  The angel waved to the rink where Max was quite evidently showing off his moves for Rose's benefit.  Andrew laughed and shook his head then turned back to JenniAnn.  "Ya done good."

"Thank you.  But that wasn't...  It's not what I'm concerned about.  I know it's really not my business but... do you know when you plan to tell him about your 'full-time occupation'?"

Andrew rubbed at his hair as he considered how best to answer.  "I don't know.  I guess I thought I'd know... ya know... when the time was right.  I usually do.  But I haven't felt that yet.  Maybe my instincts are a little off after everything that's happened."

JenniAnn didn't doubt the truth of what Andrew was saying but she couldn't help wondering if there was a little more to it.  She took a deep breath before proceeding.  "Are you reluctant to tell him because... cause of what..."  She nervously twirled her ring around her finger.

The angel could almost feel his friend's unease.  "Laja, talk to me.  Tell me what has you so nervous." 

JenniAnn inhaled slowly again then let it out.  "Okay...  See, during that call Max said he was so concerned cause while you were in Afghanistan he sometimes felt like you were hiding away what was hurting you... putting on a brave face for him.  And one of the examples he cited was that when... when those... they... when they'd drag him away a-and try to hurt him, he didn't feel anything but then you'd always look twice the worse when... when they were finished with you."  JenniAnn swatted at a tear and peered into the angel's face.  "Andrew, I know what you did.  I knew it the moment Max said he wasn't hurt by their violence.  You..."  She set her cocoa on the ground and hugged Andrew.  "You shielded him.  A-and he has no idea it was you, does he?"

Andrew felt his face flush.  Somehow he'd never considered the possibility than any of his human friends would discover that aspect of his assignment.  He hadn't wanted them to.  Each one of them was brimming with imagination and creativity, traits he usually admired and did his best to foster.  But at times those same traits made everything more difficult.  JenniAnn didn't just know about how he'd shielded Max.  She'd as good as seen it now; her mind throwing unwanted, harrowing images at her.  He could see it in her eyes.  Andrew rested his cheek against her hair, the softness and warmth a shield from his own memories.  He knew then how he could respond.  "It's over now, Laja.  Fading into the background and replaced by the memories of countless hugs and kisses and caresses," he consoled with a gentle smile.  "I promise.  As for Max... he believes it was an angel... but he has no idea I'm the angel.  Have you told anyone?"

JenniAnn, somewhat appeased, pulled away and shook her head.  "Violeta learned from Ronald.  Other than that... no one knows that I know of."

"Adam figured it out but, no, no one else."  Andrew settled against the bench, peering out at Max.  He would have made the same decision a million times over if it meant keeping the man alive and healthy.

"If Max mentions it to Rose or anyone else... Andrew, they'll all know the moment he says it just as I did.  What you did..."  JenniAnn stroked his cheek.  "It's so you... they'll know."

Turning to her, Andrew noticed that the woman was blinking rapidly, a sure sign that she was going to start crying in earnest very soon.  He didn't want their friends getting concerned and rushing over to investigate.  "Laja, let's walk," he suggested.  Andrew grabbed his walking stick and led his blurry eyed friend away from the rink to a more isolated spot.  He set their drinks on a ledge and took both her hands in his.  "I did what I had to do to protect someone I cared about.  It wasn't so long ago you put yourself in harm's way to protect someone you loved," he remarked pointedly but with no small amount of tenderness.

JenniAnn opened her mouth to object but Andrew continued.

"I know it's not the same.  But you can't deny that when you see someone you care about struggling, it's act first and think later.  They were hurting Max and I knew I could stop it.  I was in pain and you knew you could stop it.  We both did what we had to do."  He bowed his head and absently traced the pattern of her glove.  He thought of how she had twice calmed him following flashbacks that left him enraged and panicked.  During his recuperation, everyone had put their lives on hold.  They had rearranged their schedules to ensure he was never without company.  They'd listened as he recounted some of the horrors of life with his and Max's captors.  They had sat in a cramped hospital room, listening to a doctor talk about his frontal and temporal lobe.  They'd never bailed, never complained, never lost their patience with him.  "
It's not always easy to know what someone did for you," he murmured.

JenniAnn sighed.  Andrew had made remarkable strides both since returning from Afghanistan and even in the past two days since he'd been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.  However, he clearly hadn't moved past feeling some guilt.  "I know that, Andrew," she assured.  "But... as humans... there's a sorta way of living with it.  Everyone has their heroes who died for their country.  And..."  She gestured to all the Christmas decor.  "Christians believe Jesus died for our souls.  Then we have all the personal sacrifices we see every day: parents doing without so their kids can have what they need and want, teachers giving up their free time to help students, doctors skipping out on parties for a little more time in the lab just hoping to find that elusive cure.  Yeah... it can be overwhelming but... it's inspiring, too.  A-and it's no small thing to realize that someone loves you enough to do everything they can for you.  It's a novel feeling for you maybe but for us... it's really not.  When you do know the time is right... Max will be able to handle it.  It'll be a shock for sure... but he can handle it."

Andrew nodded and took another gulp of cocoa.  "You're right.  But I still feel like I should wait a little longer.  Laja, it's not even been 72 hours since you all had to tell him about the TBI diagnosis.  I think it would be better if he didn't learn so soon after that."

"Well, yeah...  I totally get that."  JenniAnn thanked God that Max had never seen Andrew during one of his breaks with reality.  It would be terribly hard to know that someone had suffered in that way because of one's self.  She craned her neck to see the rink, searching for Max.  He appeared to be racing with Adam now.  She smiled then turned back to Andrew.  "How are you feeling, anyway?  I didn't have a chance to ask this morning.  Rose had us in such a rush to get to the city...  Gee, wonder why?"

Andrew chuckled then sat back down with JenniAnn.  "I'm doing good.  I think... well, I suspect, that the brain damage is... well, not gone really.  But... controlled.."

"Controlled?"  JenniAnn was greatly surprised and curious but desperately hoped this was true.

"Yeah."  Andrew nodded.  He wanted to tell her everything so badly.  And he would... someday.  But for the timing being he could, at least, share some of his experience.  "That night in the hospital, after I was shown what... what I'd blocked out, as I was drifting to sleep, I felt this... this wonderful warmth all over my head and then the next day I just felt... better.  Of course there's still the ankle issue and I do... I'm still sad when I think about what happened.  But that feeling of being out of control... of... of worrying that I might... might hurt someone...  It's gone, Laja."  Eyes glistening with tears of relief, Andrew smiled at his friend.  He relived that powerful, calming sensation of warmth.  He prayed that somehow, on some level; JenniAnn would know who had healed him.

Dazed, JenniAnn turned away to stare at a star-shaped light at the top of a nearby tree.  As she pondered what Andrew had said, one of her favorite lines from A Christmas Carol came to mind: "'He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember, upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.'"  JenniAnn believed He had made their beloved Andrew whole.  She felt in her heart that He would have healed Andrew completely, even taken him Home, but Andrew was committed to continuing to help Max heal... not solely as an angel but as a friend, as someone who knew exactly how he felt.  She knew, too, that Andrew was also determined to spend Christmas with them all, striving to make up for the celebrations and mundane moments he had missed.  For those reasons alone, Andrew had thus far foregone a return to Heaven.  JenniAnn hugged him tightly.  "I'm so glad, Andrew.  So glad."  She kissed his cheek, hoping that one gesture would convey all the love and gratitude that words could not, then pulled away and sighed.

Andrew smiled and happily echoed his friend's sigh.  "I have a lot to be glad for this Christmas," he responded, his voice soft.  He silently thanked the Father for everything that had been restored to him: the sun, the moon, the stars, the snow, his house, his dog, his friends, freedom to go where he wished, to sing, to dance, to share His love.  He pulled out his pocket watch and traced the words engraved into its cover by God: "I love you."  Andrew whispered the words back then squeezed JenniAnn's hand.  "It's almost sunset, Laja.  We'll be able to see the lights really soon.  Wanna head back to the rink and start corralling everyone?"

JenniAnn nodded eagerly and went with Andrew to gather their friends.

December 2nd, 2012

Max hummed "Good King Wenceslaus" as he stirred the blueberry pancake batter, smiling as he recalled Lady Beth's instructions.  His smile grew when he thought of the evening before.  After ice skating, he and Andrew's friends had toured Manhattan, admiring Christmas light displays.  There had been a soft snow, light enough to be beautiful without being a nuisance but slick enough to give a good excuse to walk arm in arm with Rose.  JenniAnn and Violeta had constantly hovered near Andrew though neither seemed near as worried as they'd been the night Max had first come to Dyeland, the night Andrew had been hospitalized. 

Max still wondered how exactly their group had come together.  He felt comfortable enough to ask questions but, secure in the knowledge they weren't going any where, he also enjoyed letting the mystery play out around him then piecing together clues.  A remark he'd overheard from Adam about when JenniAnn was a senior in high school led him to believe that she and Andrew had met then, likely in Dyeland, with the others finding their way there over the years.  Max knew JenniAnn was thirty and, having briefly caught a glimpse of Andrew's driver's license, knew he was thirty seven.  Max wondered if it was weird that he couldn't imagine JenniAnn as a teenager and found it stranger still to envision Andrew as a young man barely older than himself.  It seemed like they always should have existed just as they were.  He still couldn't figure Violeta out.  Bright as she was, something about her put him in mind of girls he'd gone to high school with: determined and hesitant, poised and awkward all at once.  And while the other girls gently teased Andrew about his handsome looks and charm, Violeta only smiled and never joined in.  Judging by behavior alone, Max would have guessed that Violeta was either Andrew's much doted on younger sister or even, possibly, his daughter.  However, he knew Andrew didn't have children and couldn't imagine him never mentioning that Violeta was his sister if that was the case. Max wondered if, like him, Violeta simply looked up to Andrew as the father she'd never had.

As Max mused, his own father, Rex Remus, entered the kitchen.

"Good morning, Dad!" Max greeted cheerily.  "You hungry?  I'm making us some blueberry pancakes."

Rex nodded.  "Sounds good."

"We still on to go get our Christmas tree later?"

"Yeah.  Just got to run some errands first.  Didn't get to them all yesterday."

Max bit his lip, contemplating whether to press the matter.  "But you'll be home by 2:00?"

"I'll try."

The young man was unconvinced but muttered a "thanks." 

"Blueberry pancakes, huh?"

Max smiled.  "Yeah.  One of Andrew's friends taught me.  Dad, I'd really like for you to meet them.  Andrew especially."

"Sure."  Rex made his way to the coffee maker, first pulling a bottle from the cabinet and pouring a generous amount of clear liquid into his mug before the coffee.  "Someday," he added as he shuffled to the table and unfolded a newspaper.

Max grimaced.  "God forbid a day not start with whiskey," he said under his breath. 

"You talking to me, boy?"

"No, Dad.  Just to myself."  Max poured some batter into a pan.  "So what kind of tree you think?  Fir, pine, spruce?"

"Don't care so long as we can get it in here without much trouble.  I don't want needles all over the carpet."

"Right."  Max was tempted to point out that even when needles fell, his dad would hardly be the one picking them up.  He'd spent his first days following his return from Germany just getting the house cleaned. 

Once he had four pancakes, Max sat the remainder of the batter down and dished two up for himself and the other two for his father.  "Enjoy!" he said brightly as he placed the plate in front of Rex.  When he'd taken a seat himself, Max bowed his head and prayed silently.  When he finished, he saw his dad looking at him and scoffing.

"Army made you all religious."

"No.  But I don't think a person can experience what I did and not spend some time thinking about God and thanking Him.  Dad, someone was protecting me over there.  Andrew, obviously.  But someone else.  An angel.  When those guys came at me... I didn't feel it.  How do you explain that?"

"They're damn cowards and weaklings.  I've said that from the first.  You were just lucky."

Max scowled.  "Whatever."

Rex emptied his plate then stepped away from the table, taking his mug with him, without saying another word.

Max sighed, finished his pancakes, then made himself another stack and dug in.

December 3rd, 2012

Andrew, fresh from a group therapy session at the VA Medical Center in New York, stepped into his house.  He smiled when he picked up on the aroma of cornbread baking and the sounds of JenniAnn and Violeta having a lively discussion in the kitchen.  They were so engrossed, they didn't notice as he stood in the hallway.

"I just don't get it.  How do they believe that one man visits every house in the world in one night?" Violeta queried.  JenniAnn had taken her to see Adam playing Santa and it had left her brimming with questions and some concern.

"Magic.  Imagination.  Kids don't need everything to conform to physics to believe it," JenniAnn answered.  "And thank God for that.  Because there's a lot in life that it's good to believe in... and those beliefs don't all follow the rules of logic and science, either."

"But why don't people stick with teaching about Nicholas?  Why turn his story into this Santa myth with the North Pole and reindeer and..."  The young angel shook her head, daunted.  "Why is Adam playing into it?"

"Because it brings joy to children which, in turn, makes Adam happy.  You saw.  I guess I always thought maybe God started giving that role to Adam every year cause, well, it's a nice balance to what he sometimes has to see.  As for the larger theological issue... Would you agree that one of the most important aspects of St. Nicholas' life was that he was kind and generous to others?" JenniAnn asked as she pulled a pan of corn bread from the oven.


"All right.  And we want to keep that memory of him alive.  Forever.  But as much as I admire him... I don't want to sit little Shelby down and explain to her that we should be kind and generous as Nicholas was when he saved three girls from a life of forced prostitution.  Later, when she's older, I want her to learn about the real Nicholas.  But right now...  He's Santa.  Does that make sense?"

Violeta nodded.  "But isn't it traumatic when kids find out the truth?  Good bye North Pole, elves, chimneys...  Adults lied."

"I don't really think so.  I was fine when I found out 'the truth': that my parents were the ones who lovingly picked the toys and that there is a man who loved God so very much and showed it by being kind and good to others.  He probly had the same questions all of us humans do, the same doubts.  But Nicholas did his best and he lives in Heaven now, still loving all of us kids... no matter how old we are.  And who knows that he's not inspiring all those Santas like Adam?"

The young angel contemplated this, her thoughts turning to her supervisor who loved God and was always kind and good.  "Do you think when Max finds out about Andrew... maybe it'll be something like that?  He'll realize the real story is better than the bits and pieces of truth he had before?"

Surprised by the aptness of Violeta's connection, JenniAnn turned away from the counter to face her and in so doing saw Andrew.  He seemed interested in her response so JenniAnn nodded at the younger angel.  "Ya know, I think that's very likely.  And even though I really, really want Max to know about Andrew being an angel, I think it's kinda like my Shelby example.  St. Nick's real story would just plain be too much for Shel right now.  Once Max has a lil more time among us, a lil more time with Andrew under good conditions with him being happy and healthy... Max'll be ready."  JenniAnn grinned at Andrew.  "Although the analogy does falter on one point..."

"What's that?" the trainee asked, still oblivious.

"With all due respect and love to St. Nick... Andrew's far cuter, I'm sure."  Giggling, JenniAnn tilted her head to the hall.

Violeta saw her supervisor and hugged him as he blushed upon hearing JenniAnn's remark.  "Hi.  Dinner's almost ready.  We're having tomato bisque, spinach with feta and cranberries, and cornbread."

Andrew smiled.  "It sounds and smells delicious.  But I'm looking forward to spending time with you and JenniAnn even more than the food."  He kissed his trainee's hair then moved to hug JenniAnn.  "Good job on the Santa thing.  I heard most of it," he whispered.  "And... I hope you're right about the analogy."

"Thank you.  And I'm sure I am."  JenniAnn returned the hug.  "So how was group?"

The angel of death began to set the table.  "Good.  Sad, though.  The counselor asked about our holiday plans... not everyone had them.  The hospital has activities so no one will be alone if they don't want to be but still..."  Andrew shook his head.

"No one should be alone now, especially when they've gone through so much."  Violeta frowned before looking back to Andrew, her eyes brightening.  "Did you ask the counselor about our idea?"

Beaming, Andrew nodded.  "He loved it."

"Good.  So we were thinking we could use the 15th and 16th to make the blankets and cookies," JenniAnn informed.  "Then you can bring them with you to your session on the 17th.  We just need to know how many people, counselor included."


"Including you?"


"Well, you may not need your own tin of cookies given we never seem to run out here but you're definitely getting a blanket."  JenniAnn turned to Violeta.  "Help me remember nine."

Violeta dutifully nodded.  "Andrew, do you want the gifts to be a surprise to Max or do you think he'd want to come help us?"

"I think it'd mean more to him to have the time with us than be surprised.  He, umm, seemed down today," Andrew frowned and rubbed his hair.  "I know he planned to spend yesterday getting a Christmas tree with his dad but I got the impression that didn't pan out.  Hey, do you think... I know everyone's busy with their own holiday preparations but for those who have some free time... I thought maybe we could do a little more together than we usually do.  Invite Max along.  He was so happy Saturday."

"I don't see a problem with that at all," JenniAnn assured.  "I'd love to spend more time together.  Starting with right now..."  She sat the kettle of soup down.  "Dinner's ready."   

Once they were seated, the three joined hands as Andrew led grace.  "Father, we thank You for this delicious meal and for the time to enjoy it together.  Please bless our friends and our family and help us to always recognize the blessings in our own lives.  Amen."

"Amen," the two women echoed.

JenniAnn took a sip of her soup then looked to Andrew.  "First thing first, we're getting that boy a Christmas tree."

"Definitely," Andrew agreed.

"Max needs his own ornament," Violeta pointed out.

JenniAnn nodded.  "Andrew's already on it."

That much settled, they enjoyed their meal and began to lay the groundwork for a festive month ahead.  After a while, Andrew found himself simply listening and feeling incredibly proud as JenniAnn and Violeta rattled off idea after idea.  If Thanksgiving had been any indication, and he was sure it was, they would make Christmas a season that neither he nor Max would ever forget.  He hoped he could make them as happy as they were making him.

December 8th, 2012

JenniAnn was out walking Fawn and Lulu when she saw Max standing on Andrew's porch.

"Max!" she called.

Startled, the young man turned towards her.  "Hi JenniAnn.  I was hoping Andrew was around.  I don't know why I didn't call first..."

JenniAnn stepped closer.  "He just went to pick something up back in Manhattan.  He'll be coming over to my place soon.  You wanna wait there?"

"Oh no.  I don't want to interrupt..."

The woman waved off his concern.  "We didn't have much planned.  He was just gonna help me get the ornaments unpacked for tonight's decorating party.  Since you're here... wanna help me get an early start?"

"You're sure?"

The woman grinned.  "I am.  Are you?  I'm basically asking you to come over and help me haul boxes."

Laughing, Max nodded.  "Sounds like fun."  He followed JenniAnn and the dogs back to Willowveil. 

"Gosh, have you even seen the ballroom?" JenniAnn asked once they were inside and shedding their coats.

"You have a ballroom?" 

"Yeah.  It's one of the biggest rooms in Dyeland.  A lot of our larger parties happen there.  Actually... we were all there the evening Adam called and told us Andrew was rescued.  We'd been having a prayer vigil."  She paused to remember and treasure that moment. 

Max set a hand on her shoulder.  "He prayed for all of you a lot while we were over there."

JenniAnn looked up at him with a teary smile then sighed.  "That's our Andrew."  She swiped at her eyes.  "So... ballroom.  C'mon!"

Max followed his hostess into the room and gaped.  He moved to the center of the space and stared at the massive tree filling a corner and nearly touching the ceiling.  He'd never seen a Christmas tree so large in anyone's home... only in parks, stores, and museums.  Of course, he'd never been in a castle.  There was a lot to Dyeland that was novel to him.  Even though he'd spent several evenings there since they'd first brought him, he felt like he'd only scratched the surface. 

JenniAnn looked to Max, amused by his surprise.  "I think we need some cider as we work.  I'll leave you to explore while I go get that."  As she walked away, she was grateful that some foresight had told her to stash the scrapbooks she usually kept on the coffee tables scattered along the walls.  She really didn't want to have to creatively explain how a thirty-something Andrew was at her high school graduation party...

When JenniAnn returned, she and Max made short work of moving three crates of ornaments from the storage room to a line of tables near the ballroom's windows.

"Now, usually I try to have everything unwrapped and set out at least somewhat nicely before the others arrive.  Some people are pretty particular about wanting to hang certain ones themselves so it makes it easier for them to find those," the woman explained.

"How can I be sure I don't try to hang one of those?" Max asked with concern.  The last thing he wanted to do was mess with anyone's traditions or cause offense.

"I'll tell people to hang their special ones right off the bat.  No worries."  With a smile, she noticed that Max's gaze kept traveling to the tree.  "It's beautiful, isn't it?  We used to have a real one every year but... I dunno... I just got sad every time they'd start to die... knowing they'd still be alive if we'd just left them.  It was different when there were fewer of us and we could have a small, potted tree that we could plant later.  But as we grew, so did our tree needs.  So... Adam got that one from a mall that was closing down.  He'd been their in-store Santa... pro bono... but they insisted on his taking something as payment so... the tree it was."

"Awesome."  Max smiled. 

"I think so," JenniAnn agreed. 

Max walked over to a crate and began unloading and unwrapping.  "That's a lot of ornaments."

"Yep.  There's at least one to represent every person here... every member of the family, so to speak.  And others represent experiences we've shared, people who are meaningful to us.  Like this is for my great-aunt who passed away a couple years ago."  JenniAnn smiled tenderly as she held up a rainbow-colored peace sign.  "Oh and here's Andrew's... well, his main one."  She let Max examine a gold pocket watch ornament.  "Usually we wait til later in the month to decorate but I dunno...  I guess we all need a lil extra Christmas this year."  With a bittersweet smile, JenniAnn returned to her unpacking.

"Do you think maybe you could tell me the stories behind the ornaments as we go?" Max requested.

JenniAnn paused.  That would take some finessing given the huge secret that hung between them but she nodded.  "Sure."

Excited, Max held the ornament he'd just unwrapped out to her.  "What's this one for?" he asked as he held out a stylized heart.  "It... I don't know... something about it makes me really happy but also kind of sad."

"Oh that..."  JenniAnn cradled the decoration she had made.  It was a wooden heart, broken in half then mended.  One half was green and the other blue.  "Andrew and I hit a rough patch a few years ago.  I was seeing someone and... and neglected poor Andrew.  It's hard to believe I willingly went so long without speaking to him much at all and then..."

Max hugged her.  "It's okay.  You don't have to tell me any more.  I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to pry."

JenniAnn swiped at a tear and smiled.  "It's okay.  I'm the one wearing my heart on my tree.  It's just surreal to me that once I could go so long without him and then when you both were away...  If it weren't for the dreams then..."  She froze.

"I know about the dreams," her guest confessed.  "Andrew called to you in his sleep and so I asked..."

"He did?"  JenniAnn stared down at her Claddagh, wishing that the angel was there.

"Yeah.  I don't know what happened in them, of course.  Andrew would never betray your confidence like that.  But I know he thought the dreams were real.  I take it they were real for you, too?"


"Andrew believes God sent them."  Max peered at the woman, wondering what her response to that would be.

JenniAnn smiled, nodding.  "I think Andrew's right."

Max knew to leave the subject there.  He wanted to know how it was two people could share one dream but also felt that JenniAnn needed Andrew with her before she could talk about it at greater length.  He reached for another ornament and unwrapped it.  "Is this..."

Grateful for the change of subject, JenniAnn suppressed the urge to giggle when she saw his blush.  "That one is Rose's ornament.  I still remember making it right before her first Christmas with us."  She caressed the cluster of ribbon roses.

Max reverently laid it down.  "Do you think..."  He paused and ran his hand over his hair.

JenniAnn wondered if Max had always had the tic or only picked it up since his time with Andrew had begun.  Either way, she found it endearing.  "Do I think what?"

"At times like this I really wish I had a mom..." the man muttered.

"So... what is it you'd want to ask her if she were here?"

"My actual mom?  Lots of things: why did you leave me, are you happy, do you think about me, do you love me even a little?  But the reason I want a mom right now is... is I'd want to ask her: how do you know if a girl likes you just as a friend or maybe... maybe something more?"

JenniAnn gently took the young man's hand and led him to a couch.  "Max, I can't answer those first questions for you.  I can say that if I was your mom then I would have had to have been in an awful lot of pain and very confused to leave you.  And even if I did pick up the pieces of my life, there'd be a hole in my heart forever because I would think of you.  All the time.  And, however imperfectly... however short of what you deserve... I would love you."

Max swiped at a tear but smiled.  "Thanks.  And... the last part?"

The woman's face lit up.  That she could answer with complete confidence.  "I would say that if a girl is staying up until all hours of the night on the phone with you... she probably likes you as more than a friend."

Grinning, Max didn't say anything more as he helped unwrap ornaments.

The two had nearly emptied the boxes when they heard the front door open. 

"Andrew, I think... I hope," JenniAnn guessed before running to the hall where she found Andrew kicking snow off his boots.  He didn't even have his coat off before she hugged him tightly.  "I love you," she murmured as she brushed snow from his shoulders.

Andrew chuckled.  "I love you, too.  This is quite a greeting considering I've only been gone for two hours."

JenniAnn shrugged.  "I missed you.  So did ya get it finished?"

"I did.  Eliot helped with some of the finer details but yeah."  Andrew beamed and held up a small box.  "Is Max here?  I got a text from him saying he was coming early but it didn't come through until I left the Tunnels."

"Yep.  He's been helping me unwrap the ornaments.  C'mon." 

Andrew followed his friend into the ballroom, laughing again when he saw Max curiously examining Logan's Star Wars ornament.  "Hey there, Max," he greeted.  "How are you today?"

Max approached sporting a wide smile.  "Great!  Just admiring all of your Christmas ornaments.  JenniAnn's been telling me the stories behind them.  It's like a literal sort of family tree, isn't it?"  He turned back to the tree, still agog.

"You know, I guess it is.  If it is a family tree then it really should be a complete one, don't you think?"  Andrew smiled and handed Max the package he'd brought.  "Open it."

With a curious look, Max accepted the gift and tore away the paper.  He found himself holding two nearly identical wooden ornaments.  In the center of each was a heart and surrounding them was a maze of pathways.

JenniAnn hugged Andrew's arm as he began to explain.

"Do you remember when you drew that labyrinth for me in Afghanistan?" the angel asked quietly.

Max nodded, still transfixed by the ornaments.

"That meant a lot to me.  It reminded me of home, of where I'm loved.  You've seen the labyrinth over on Salome by now so you know why.  So now those are your labyrinths, Max.  All the paths lead to the center, to love, to home.  I made you two, with the help of a friend, so you can take one home and put the other one on our Christmas tree."

Max continued to cling to the ornaments as he hugged his friend.  "Thank you."

As Andrew returned the hug, JenniAnn snuck away and into the parlor.  She returned a few moments later holding a small potted tree out to Max.  "To go with the ornament.  It's a little Charlie Brown-ish but this way you can just keep it watered and plant it come spring."

Blinking, Max took the tree.

"It's a seedling from one of the trees in the Fields of Gold... some place we'll have to take you when it warms up," Andrew explained.

"How... how did you know I didn't get a tree?" Max questioned.

JenniAnn squeezed his hand.  "Andrew's very observant.  And this lil tree needs someone to take care of it." 

Max's gaze flitted from the tree to Andrew to JenniAnn.  For a brief moment he allowed himself to imagine another life in which he'd grown up there with Andrew and JenniAnn watching over him and Rose nearby and the others' friendly faces a regular and welcome presence.  The past was set but his future felt more open and brighter than it ever had.  "Thank you," he responded, his voice as soft as it was sincere.

Andrew and JenniAnn both knew he was talking about far more than a miniature Christmas tree.

"You're very welcome," the angel answered.  "Now... how about doing a light check with me?"

"I'd love to."  Max gently set his tree down then helped unravel cord upon cord of tree lights as they waited for the others to arrive.

As she untangled garland, JenniAnn watched the two men.  She felt both heartened by their easygoing banter and worried.  When Andrew's assignment with Max had began, she had prayed fervently for its swift conclusion.  Now she was afraid of what it would do to Andrew when it ended.  Then she shook her head, dismissing the worries.  There was a tree to be decorated and, very soon, the company of friends to enjoy.  And for that moment in time, Andrew was blissfully, deservedly happy.  JenniAnn was content.


That night, after the tree was decorated, the Dyelanders spent time visiting, dancing, and playing games.  As always, there were numerous tasty treats and indulgent beverages to be enjoyed.  Yva finished replenishing a tray of chocolates then approached Andrew and JenniAnn as they sat up a game of Pin the Nose on Rudolph for the kids. 

"I love this," she declared.  "Max is a great kid just on his own but I love that having him around has meant doing more together.  I've always enjoyed our tree decorating parties but it seems like some years that was the only time we all saw each other over the holidays."

"Altogether as a group, I'd say you were definitely right," JenniAnn agreed. 

"But this year we had the outing to Manhattan last week, now the tree decorating, a marathon baking and blanket-making session next week, and then caroling at the Phoenix the weekend before Christmas."  Yva looked at them with a mischievous smile.  "I hope we're not all sick of each other by 2013."

Andrew grinned.  "Never."  He stuck the reindeer's nose on his own.  "What do you think?"

"Hmm..." JenniAnn mused.  "Just a bit more Bozo than Rudolph, I'm afraid."

Yva laughed.  "I quite prefer your own nose, Andrewkins.  Besides, how's Rudolph going to guide the sleigh if you're wearing his nose?"

"Unhand my lead deer's nostrils!" Adam cried, ambling over in full Santa regalia.

Laughing, Andrew plucked the nose off and handed it to his festively clad fellow angel.  "I see you went with the 'jolly old elf' look this year.  Very nice."

Dropping his "Santa voice," Adam shrugged.  "I couldn't decide.  Then Violeta saw me in my Father Christmas gear and asked if I was Dumbledore.  That pretty much settled that..."

Andrew chuckled.  "I think Max and Rose are gathering recruits to their Harry Potter fan club."

Yva tilted her head, thinking of when she'd last seen Adam so clad.  "Actually... I could see that.  You have a sort of impish, wise Dumbledore vibe, Adam."

JenniAnn hugged the elder angel of death.  "Aww, Adam, you'll always be my favorite Santa no matter what suit you're wearing.  Well, my favorite Santa after, ya know, Santa.  Can I get you more cookies and milk?"

Adam shook his head.  "Ol' Santa's had about all the cookies he can take in.  The Abominable Snow Angel already gave him the Look when she caught him sneaking the last peppermint pinwheel..."  He glared at Tess across the room, grinning when she glared back and shook her finger at him.  He pulled a bag of the cookies from his pocket.  "Now I think I'll go make peace with her over some peppermint pinwheel like substance."

Once Adam had walked away, JenniAnn and Yva turned to Andrew.

"Peppermint pinwheel like substance?" Yva questioned.

"I'm growing just a bit alarmed by how often 'like substance' pops up in Adam's offerings...  Should we not be eating at his place anymore?" JenniAnn queried.

Andrew laughed.  "I'm sure it's fine.  But if he offers you mutton-like substance... just say no."  He shivered.  "Bad experience in the Middle Ages."

The two women exchanged curious glances but didn't question the angel any further when they saw Max was approaching... looking a few shades more pink than normal. 

"Hi," he greeted, smiling at JenniAnn and Yva before shooting Andrew a look that said "We need to talk!"

Andrew took a gulp of his cocoa then sighed.  "You know, I just can't get enough of this and I bet the thermos is about empty.  Laja, can I borrow your kitchen to make more?"

"Any time," she responded, looking curiously from one man to the other before Yva surreptitiously elbowed her and tilted her head to where Rose was standing and watching across the room.  JenniAnn bowed her head to hide her bemused grin then smiled sweetly at the angel.  "Thank you so very much for volunteering to make more cocoa, Andrew.  I'll make sure everyone stays out of your way in the kitchen but maybe Max could go with you to help?"

"For sure," Max agreed without hesitation then followed Andrew away.

Yva laughed.  "I can't help but feel like Andrew's suddenly found himself the father of a lovesick teenager.  This'll be fun!"

JenniAnn smiled, too, but felt a pang of sadness at Yva's words.  As much as it warmed her heart to see the bond between Andrew and Max strengthening, she knew that Max had a father.  She was grieved that his father was being negligent... again.  She'd tried praying that Rex Remus would have a Scrooge-style awakening but she also feared any such awakening would mean Max would spend less time with them until, as others before him, he stopped visiting entirely.  She didn't fear so much for Rose's sake.  Even if Max and Rex patched things up, it wouldn't extinguish the spark between Rose and Max.  But JenniAnn had to admit that she feared for her own heart.  Max filled a hole in Dyeland and in her own life that, until he'd appeared, she hadn't realized was so gaping.  Dyeland had long been completely devoid of young men.  There was Owen, of course, but he'd always seemed as a brother to JenniAnn.  She leaned as heavily on him as he did on her.  Max was different.  She loved him for who he was: his humbleness, an innocence that hadn't been quelled by his father's negligence or the hell that had been his tour in Afghanistan, his eagerness to please and to help, and his blind acceptance of and trust in them even when he had to know they were hiding something.  But she also saw in Max the son that Andrew might have had if things had been different.  That frightened her most of all because something told her that, on some level at least, Andrew saw Max as exactly that, too.  And what if Max decided he didn't need a surrogate father?

Yva frowned.  "What's going on in your head?"

JenniAnn roused, embarrassed that she'd zoned out for so long.  "Sorry.  It's just... Do you ever feel like... like you should pray for something but it's not something you want?"

"I guess sometimes.  I'll pray that Papa's latest inventions do well even though I know that will mean he'll be busier and away more often.  Why?"

"I feel like I should pray that Max's dad gets a clue wrapped up under the tree this Christmas.  But..."

"You don't want Andrew to be hurt," Yva surmised.  "None of us want that.  Especially not now.  He's had enough hurt these past months.  So..."


"God knows already what Mr. Remus will do.  And I can't imagine He wants you praying insincerely so... If I were you, I'd keep it simple: Thy will be done."

JenniAnn blushed.  "Shoulda thought of that.  Thank you."

"Any time.  Maybe your mind would be a little clearer if you drank less caffeine and slept more," Yva teased.

Laughing, JenniAnn hugged her mug of chai to her chest.  "New Year's resolution maybe?"

Yva laughed.  "I give it a week.  Now... let's go check in with our friend, Rose," she suggested, her eyes twinkling.


"So... Rose and I thought we might go see Life of Pi in the city tonight," Max announced as he poured marshmallows into a dish while Andrew stirred cocoa.

"Cool.  I heard that was really good.  I'm sure you'll enjoy it."

"Do you... think that's okay?"

Eye brow arched, Andrew turned to his assignment.  "Why wouldn't I?"

Max shrugged. 

Andrew set his hands on the younger man's shoulders.  "Max, I wouldn't have introduced you to my friends if I didn't trust you.  So just... no texting while driving, no speeding, buckle your seat belts, etc., etc."

Grinning, Max nodded.  "Absolutely."

"So when are you leaving?"

"In about half an hour we thought.  Will anyone mind us cutting out early?  Because we won't if..."

"A lot of people will probably start leaving around then.  It's completely fine."

"Thanks!  So... you have any plans after this?"

Andrew nodded.  "JenniAnn and I are introducing Violeta to the greatness that is It's a Wonderful Life.  Some others might stick around for that."

Max chuckled and rolled his eyes.  "I can remember, when we were over there, how you'd spend hours perfecting that Jimmy Stewart impression of yours.  So... have you gotten to show it off for JenniAnn?"

Andrew smiled softly.  "I did."  The memory was still sweet and he wouldn't let it be marred by what had happened later that night.  "I offered to lasso the moon for her... she settled for dinner and dessert."

"I'm sure she enjoyed the company more than the food."  Max's smile gave way to a contemplative look.  "When we were over there... did you think we'd be home for Christmas?"

"I did," Andrew averred.  "But sometimes... sometimes I wasn't sure which home it would be."

Max peered out of the kitchen window, gazing up at the stars.  "I hope to see Heaven someday.  But I'm really glad this is the home we came back to."

"Me too.  Now... I have some cocoa to get out there and you have a movie to get to."  Andrew smiled at Max.

The young man grabbed the elder's arm.  "Wait... do I pay?  For the movie, I mean."

"Umm..."  Andrew suddenly realized how ill-equipped he was to give dating advice... if dating was, in fact, what Max and Rose were doing.  "Did you ask Rose to the movie or was it a mutually agreed upon decision?"

"We were just talking and I said 'I heard Life of Pi is really good,' and then she said 'Oh yeah.  Me too!  I'd love to see it,' and then I said 'Do you want to see it with me later tonight?'  So, yeah, I guess." 

"Then you should pay.  If she offers to buy snacks or something, and she probably will, then let her do that.  Are you driving?"

Max nodded. 

"Then if you want to crash at my place after you drop Rose off rather than make the trip back to Jersey so late, that's fine."

"Thanks.  I'll take you up on that."  Beaming, Max picked up the bowl of marshmallows.  "Ready?"

"Definitely."  Andrew lifted the thermos and followed Max back to the ballroom, smiling to himself as he noted the spring in his assignment's step.


"Laja, what are you doing?"

JenniAnn jumped and stepped back from Andrew's picture window.  "Nothing..."  Her crooked smile revealed she knew exactly what Andrew thought she'd been doing and that his theory was correct.  "I just really hope they had a nice time.  They both deserve it."

Andrew hugged her.  "They do."

"So do you.  You still haven't given me any ideas on what you want for Christmas."

The angel settled onto the couch with a sigh.  "I've been so blessed this past month, Laja.  How could I ask for anything more?"

JenniAnn sat beside him.  "It's still so surreal...  A month ago was the last dream.  I thought... feared... we were losing you somehow.  And you... you were... were lying in a cave after having experienced something so terrible.  Now here we are, sitting on your couch, waiting to see how your assignment's first date with our friend went.  So much has happened in so little time," she marveled.

Andrew rested his arm around her shoulders.  "And in the worst of it and in the best of it, I was never alone.  I've always known the Father would never leave me.  But now... now I know that..."

"We'll never leave you," JenniAnn finished for him.

Andrew nodded.  "You saw me at my... my lowest point.  And rather than run away, you all drew closer."

"Seems to me angels do that rather a lot.  I'm glad, for once, it worked in reverse," the woman mused, snuggling closer. 

"Let's read something Christmasy," the angel suggested after enjoying a few moments of quiet.  "What do you think?"

"Definitely.  But you pick."

"All right...  I don't want to get up so... I'll go with what I have handy."  He picked up the Bible he kept on the side table.  "Gospel of Matthew.  'This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.'"

JenniAnn smiled.  They were the words she had been reading the night of Andrew's worst flashback.  Hearing them from his lips, in his calm voice brought her immense peace.  The serenity lasted until Max arrived, smiling from ear to ear.

The two old friends listened to their new one gush about the movie.

"Then... because turns out we're both complete goofballs... we decided we wanted pie."  Max laughed.  "Get it?  Life of Pi... pie..."

JenniAnn shook her head and laughed.  "Yep, total goofballs for sure."

"But thoughtful goofballs."  The man held out a sack.  "One slice of red velvet pie and one slice caramel apple pie.  Rose picked.  I wasn't sure."

"Rose picked perfectly," Andrew declared.  "Thanks!"

"Welcome.  Thanks for letting me cra..."  Max's response was cut off by a yawn. 

Andrew smiled.  "I think you need to crash pretty quickly here.  I'm real glad you had a good night, Max."

Despite his weariness, Max vigorously nodded.  "The best.  But I think I will get to bed."  He hugged both Andrew and JenniAnn.  "Good night.  Thank you again."

"You're welcome.  Need anything before you settle in?" Andrew checked.

"I laid out some pajamas," JenniAnn added.

Max smiled and shook his head.  "Then I'm good.  Thanks.  See you both tomorrow.  Enjoy the pie."

"Definitely will.  Thank you!" Andrew called as Max headed upstairs.

Once she heard Max settle into one of the guest rooms, JenniAnn turned to Andrew.  "That's nice you let him crash here so he didn't have to drive back."  She hugged Andrew's arm. 

Andrew frowned.  "I would have for that reason alone but..."


"I overheard him telling Violeta that his dad was out of town for the weekend."

"Oh for crying out loud!" JenniAnn fumed before remembering to lower her voice.  "It's Christmas," she muttered to herself.  "Be generous, be kind, be compassionate..."  She drew in a deep breath. 

Andrew squeezed her hand.  It was hard to urge her to be more understanding of Max's father when he was struggling with the same himself.  In all the years he'd walked the earth, he had never been able to understand how people could hurt their children.  "At least Max is here," he finally responded.

JenniAnn hugged him.  "With the best," she murmured.

Andrew blushed and kissed her hair then smiled down at her.  "So... pie?"

Giggling, JenniAnn nodded and followed Andrew into the kitchen with the ever-hopeful Lulu and Fawn following them.

When they'd finished, Andrew set their plates in the sink.  "It's almost 2:00.  Let me walk you back to your place."

"Aww, thanks but..."

Andrew caught her glancing at his walking stick.  He hadn't needed it as much of late but that day the cold had aggravated his ankle.  Still, he wasn't letting it dictate what he did.  "It's okay.  We'll take the tunnel.  No worries," he assured.

JenniAnn wanted the angel to rest.  She'd caught him wincing a time or two.  However, she sensed in him the same reluctance she felt to let the night end.  "All right.  Thanks."

Together they walked to the basement and through the tunnel, parting when they reached JenniAnn's laundry room. 

"It was a lovely night," JenniAnn gushed.  "The ornaments meant so much to Max.  You did a beautiful job."

"Thanks.  He loves the tree, too." 
Andrew took her hands in his.  "I'm really touched... not surprised but touched... by how all of you have made Max feel so much apart of... of us."

"He is a part of us now," JenniAnn replied, not sure if she said it more as a way to reassure herself or Andrew.

"I hope so," the angel replied.  He hugged JenniAnn.  "Good night, Laja.  Rest well.  Love you."

"Love you, too.  Now... go to bed."  JenniAnn grinned. 

Smiling, Andrew nodded.  He knew, without looking back, that JenniAnn watched his retreating form until she could no longer see him.

December 15th, 2012

Lady Beth dashed from table to table, checking to ensure that all the cookies, tarts, bars, and more were coming along.  She stopped near where Andrew was teaching Max how to make Dyeland's traditional gingerbread.  JenniAnn and Rose were already at work decorating the wooden variety. 

"Oh look!  It's Violeta!  And C.J. has a horse!" Lady Beth exclaimed. 

Rose smiled.  "And look.  Gingerbread Max."  She held up a little fellow with a crimson and gold striped scarf. 

Max's own lips turned into a smile nearly as prominent as that on his faux-cookie clone.  "He looks just like me.  One question, though.  Why aren't you just decorating cookies?"

Lady Beth laughed.  "Ask JenniAnn."

Gamely, JenniAnn explained.  "Many moons ago, Lady Beth presented yours truly with a platter of delicious gingerbread men.  Feeling inspired, I proceeded to frost the lil guys so that they looked like Andrew wearing all our most favorite of his outfits.  And a tradition was born.  But there was something I hadn't thought of..."

"No one would ever actually eat the cookies after they'd been decorated.  Except me.  A cookie is a cookie!  But apparently it's 'creepy' to bite my own head off," Andrew interjected.  "Sure tasted good, though.  She used lemon cream for my hair.  It really made for a flavorful combination."

Rose laughed and turned to Max.  "JenniAnn was traumatized for weeks."

"Maybe not weeks..." the woman countered with a giggle.  "After that, we decided to only decorate wooden gingerbread men and leave the real gingerbread unadorned so no one gets traumatized.  Then we add the ginger people to the tree.  So every year it gets more and more ginger-fied."

Max shook his head in wonderment.  "You sure have a lot of traditions.  So what do you usually do for Christmas Eve and Day?"

The three woman all looked to Andrew.

"Well..." he began, "in past years a lot of us have gone to be with our family back home then.  But this year some of us were planning to celebrate together at Cora's house.  Like we did for Thanksgiving.  I don't know what your plans are, Max, but we wanted you to know that you and your dad are welcome to join us.  I know you said you wanted us to meet so...  Don't feel obligated but the invitation is out there."

Max peered into the dough he was mixing.  "We don't have any plans but... my dad's kind of a difficult person and I wouldn't want to disrupt your Christmas if he would be belligerent or..."  His gaze briefly alighted on the three ladies.  "He's not always the most... respectful."

Rose shrugged.  "Between you and Andrew, I'm sure you could keep him in check.  We all have our family issues.  No one's is perfect.  Well..."  She looked briefly to Andrew then away again.  "I think it'd be nice."

Rose's comment settled the matter for Max.  He nodded with enthusiasm.  "That sounds really great!  Thanks!  I can't wait to tell Dad!"

Andrew beamed.  "I'm looking forward to meeting him, Max.  We'll figure out the details as we get closer but plan on arriving sometime on the 24th and we'll hang around until the 26th."

For the rest of the night, a smile was plastered onto Max's face, delighting all those around him.


After making the hour long drive from the Manhattan portal to his home in New Jersey, Max cheerfully entered the house he shared with his father.  "Dad, I'm back!  And I have a tree!" he called.  "And I have the best idea for Christmas.  My friends invited us to..."  He halted in the entryway, noticing that his father's coat wasn't where it usually hung.  "Dad?" he shouted.  When no answer came, he tore into the kitchen.  He froze when he saw a torn off piece of paper on the table.  Swiping it up, he read the words.  Hot tears filled his eyes as he did.

"Max-- Quit my job.  Got a lead on a solid opportunity in Vegas.  I went with Mitch to look into it.  I'll be in touch.  We probably won't be back in town until the new year.  Take care.  Have fun with your new friends.  Merry X-mas.  -Dad."

Max crumpled up the note and shoved it in his pocket.  For three months he'd been missing, feared dead even.  When he'd finally made it back home, his dad had treated him to dinner then acted like everything should go back to normal.  He'd never asked Max how his visits with the psychiatrist at the VA hospital went.  When Max had asked him to meet Andrew, telling him how much it would mean to him to have his dad meet the man who had saved him, Rex had twice responded with variants on "Sure, someday."  The young man cursed himself for actually believing that "someday" might happen.  It was never going to happen.  His father had flaked out on him for Thanksgiving, promising Christmas would be something to celebrate.  Now he was gone again. 

Max couldn't stand being in the house.  He retrieved his keys and plowed towards the door, careful only of the tree he still carried.  He locked up, not even knowing why he bothered.  It would serve his dad right to find the place cleaned out.  Max ran to his car, settled his Christmas tree into the passenger seat, and sped off. 

Blurry eyed, Max made his way to a seldom used road.  He just wanted to drive, drive without stopping, drive without having to look out for other drivers.  His truck picked up speed as he went.  Out of no where, a deer darted into his path.  The man swerved to miss it and, in doing so, drove off the road. 

Max had the thought that maybe he should just let go, let the car slam into a tree.  End it all.  At the same instant, he saw the ornament Andrew had made him, hanging from the bough of the tree JenniAnn had given him.  As soon as he glimpsed them, he had a vision.  He saw his truck, the cab smashed into the trunk of a tree.  Andrew was running towards it, crying.  Then JenniAnn was there, trying to pry the devastated man away from the truck.  To the side, Rose was clinging to Adam and weeping.

His own scream and mechanical shrieking nearly deafened Max as he yanked the steering wheel and slammed the breaks.  The truck halted.  Its driver opened the door and fell onto the ground.  Rolling onto his back, Max stared up at the night sky and the stars. 

"Help me," he cried as his hands closed around his shark's tooth necklace.  "Help me, Father.  You... You got me home and I... I thank You for that b-but it's no home.  I can't... can't go back."

Somewhere deep inside of him, Max heard the command: drive.  Getting back into his truck, he maneuvered it onto the road again.  Andrew's voice echoed in his mind:
"All the paths lead to the center, to love, to home."

Max knew that he had to go home.

JenniAnn laughed as Andrew struggled with a spool of curling ribbon.  Somehow he had managed, yet again, to tie himself to the gift.  She was beginning to understand why he'd asked her over to help with his gift wrapping.

"Well," she teased, "while any girl would be very lucky to find you under her tree... I think Sir Sven might object to your attempt to gift yourself to his wife."

The angel of death glared playfully at JenniAnn.  "New rule.  I wrap, you do the ribbon thing.  Agreed?"

"Agreed.  I'd much rather play with bows and lace than paper, anyhow."  JenniAnn took the wrapped box from Andrew and set about decorating it for Yva.  "I really love that we all decided to go with homemade gifts this year.  Just so much more..."

She was cut off by the door bell.

"Are you expecting anyone?" the woman questioned.  "It's after 11:00... and we just saw everyone at the baking and blankets shindig."

Eye brow arched, Andrew shook his head.  "No one...  I'll go see who it is."

Not wanting to wait, JenniAnn followed the angel to the front door. 

Andrew peeked out then scrambled to unlock and open the door.  JenniAnn gasped from where she stood beside him.

"Max!" the angel pulled the young man in from the sleet that was falling around him.  "Max, what's going on?  Has something happened?"

Not waiting for an answer, JenniAnn led Max into the living room and to the fire.  She'd been so caught off guard by his woeful appearance that she hadn't noticed until that moment that he was clutching his tree beneath his coat. 

"Max...  Let's set the tree down."  She gently took it and set it on a side table before focusing on Max again.  "Your clothes are soaked through!"

"I'll go get some dry ones."  Andrew went as quickly as he could to get fresh clothes. 

"I got confused.  I went to the wrong alley a-and couldn't find my way in for... for a while.  It's sleeting in New York, too," Max told JenniAnn, his voice hoarse and flat.

"I'm sorry you got confused.  You just sit tight.  I'm gonna go get you some cocoa."  JenniAnn grabbed a heavy throw.  "Here, wrap this around yourself until Andrew gets back."

Max gratefully accepted the blanket and nodded.

JenniAnn dashed into the kitchen to get more milk heated then went to Andrew's room. 

The angel turned from his bureau when he heard the woman enter.  "I'm getting pajamas," he informed her.  "I don't know what's going on but he's not leaving this house tonight."

JenniAnn nodded in determined agreement.  "Do you think we should call Rose?"

Andrew shook his head.  "Not tonight.  Definitely tomorrow.  Max won't want her seeing him like this."

The woman bowed her head.  "But..."

The angel approached and squeezed her hand.  "Don't make a connection between us and Rose and Max.  I wasn't comfortable with all you had to see when I was struggling.  But I also knew that we had thirteen years of history.  Things are still new for Max and Rose.  They don't have a bunch of happy, beautiful memories together to balance out... that."

"You're right."  She sighed.  "I'm going back to the kitchen.  The milk for his cocoa's probly almost ready."

"Good.  If you'll get that, I'll get these to him... and then we're going to find out what's going on."  Andrew hugged his friend.  "I'm glad you're here."

JenniAnn nodded against his chest.

As they parted, the two prayed that they'd be able to help Max.


Max looked considerably better once he'd showered, changed, and the cocoa and fire were warming him.  After giving him a few moments to pull himself together, Andrew and JenniAnn took seats across from him.

"Max, do you want to tell us what's going on?" JenniAnn asked gently.

Not trusting his own voice, Max pulled a wad of paper from where he'd moved it to a pocket in the lent pajama bottoms.  He held it out to Andrew.

The angel unraveled the paper.  "Do you want JenniAnn to see it, too?"


Andrew held the note between them.  His face hardened as he read it.  JenniAnn gripped his hand tightly, fighting the urge to start railing at the absent man. 

"I... I could have died," Max choked out.  "I thought Christmas could be... be special and... he's not even... not there."

Andrew moved to sit beside his assignment.  "Max, I'm very sorry that your dad's left again.  You are a good son, a kind man and you deserve all of your father's love.  You know that, right?"

Max shrugged.

"Andrew's right, Max," JenniAnn insisted.  "But sometimes even the best people don't get treated well."  She looked tenderly at both men.  Max reached for her hand but said nothing.

Andrew could see how exhausted his assignment was.  He wanted to keep talking to him, keep assuring him that he was loved and worthy of being loved.  He could tell that JenniAnn longed to do the same.  However, Max was blinking and his head hung heavily.  "Max, you've had a rough night.  You wanna turn in?"

"Yes, please."  Max again hugged Andrew then JenniAnn and moved to his feet. 

"I'll show you to your room to make sure you have everything you need.  I figured we'd stick with the one you've been using when you've stayed over before.  Okay?" Andrew suggested.

Max nodded, his gratitude evident despite his weariness.  "Good night, JenniAnn.  Will I see you tomorrow?"

"I'll be by for breakfast," she promised.  "You rest well.  Everything will look brighter in the morning."

The young man nodded silently, not sure he believed it.  He turned to Andrew and followed him.

Just as Andrew moved into the hall, he looked back to JenniAnn who was pointing to the floor.  He nodded, sending her a thoughtful half-smile.


Andrew found JenniAnn in the laundry room, folding table linens while another load spun in the dryer. 

"Laja, it's after midnight.  And this is my laundry..."

"All caught up on mine."

"Then maybe, you know, don't do laundry?  Relax?" the angel suggested.

JenniAnn shrugged.  "This is relaxing.  The white noise.  The fabric softener smell."

"All right."  Andrew moved to the work table and helped her fold, sensing she had something on her mind.  He waited patiently for her to open up to him. 

As they came together to fold a tablecloth, JenniAnn gripped Andrew's right hand.  "There's something... something I just don't get."

The angel finished folding the linen then led his friend into the other room, tilting his head to the couch.  "What's that?" he asked, once they were both sitting.

"So many, many people out there... desperately wanting children.  B-but they're infertile or never found the right person or... or don't have the money to adopt or a million other reasons."

Andrew stared down at his hands, silently adding "or fell in love with an angel of death."  He gripped his friend's hands in his.

JenniAnn continued.  "And then... then there are the people who had children they loved, children they would have died for.  And they lost them.  Those people would give anything to parent their little ones again!  But then..."  The woman shook her head, her hair flying, as the tears welling in her eyes began to fall.  "We have people like Max's parents.  They have a blessing that some of us would give anything for!  And they squander that gift!  They're abusive and/or they're negligent.  Rex Remus virtually got his son back from the dead and he leaves him alone on Thanksgiving to fish and then again on Christmas for what I'm sure is some scam?!  It makes me so angry and so... sad.  And ungrateful.  God has blessed me so much... so much."  She caressed the angel's face.  "It's Christmas and you're here.  Miraculously, wonderfully here.  But it bothers me so much that Rex has trashed something I want: Christmas with my... my kid."

Andrew pulled JenniAnn to him as she wept.  He searched for something to say but it was so hard when he'd had the same thoughts, the same anger.  He'd sometimes wished he could drag the negligent and abusive parents to the heartbroken and mourning parents and shout "Look!  You still have what they would give anything to get back!  How dare you hurt your child!  How dare you neglect one of the greatest blessings you were ever given!"  And there were the times, too, when he had to witness a parent mistreating their child or ignoring them when they were most in need of something as simple as a hug.  Always a part of him wished he could take the kids away and see to it that they never wanted for affection again, never feared a parent's violence.  But he could do neither.  A tear slid down his own cheek.  He couldn't give JenniAnn what she wanted most, either.  He truly believed she would be a mother someday but holding out a vision he couldn't show her, couldn't prove to her wasn't what she needed.  Then, suddenly, the answer came to him not from the future but from the recent past.  He and Max had been sitting in Cora's living room after a massive Thanksgiving feast. 

"So I want you and JenniAnn to adopt me," Max had said with a grin.  Andrew had laughed and pointed out that JenniAnn was a mere seven years older than Max to which he'd replied "I could cope."  Max had been joking and yet...  Andrew had detected a hint of wistfulness mixed in with his joviality. 

Gently, Andrew pried JenniAnn away from him.  He peered into her eyes as he pushed tear-soaked hair behind her ears.  "Laja, that... it does hurt so badly and it is unfair.  But I believe God has a purpose... always.  And even when humans stray from that purpose... He still has a way of righting things.  What Rex has done is... it's terrible.  I can't fathom it and I am angry at him.  So angry.  But of all the people I could have been assigned to, all the soldiers I could have spent three months with... the Father assigned me to Max, knowing he'd been abandoned by his mother and that his father was no one he could depend on.  I think God had a reason beyond my helping Max through those terrible days and nights in Afghanistan.  The Father paired Max up with one of the few angels in Heaven with a human family.  That means something!  It has to!"

Wiping at her eyes, JenniAnn stopped crying and looked intently at Andrew.

"Max is a grown man, Laja," the angel of death continued.  "He doesn't need parents in any legal sense.  But he does need a whole lot of paternal love... and I think I can give him that and keep teaching him about God the Father.  But you... Laja, you don't need to have given birth to be a mother and you don't even need a legal proceeding to make you one... although I will 100% support you if and when you do adopt.  Look at how much Shelby loves you and how much you love her!  You're the closest she has to a mother.  Don't you think... maybe... you could be the same for Max?"  Andrew took the woman's hands in his.  "So many times I've felt as you have, Laja.  But now I feel like... like we have this chance to do exactly what we've both always wanted.  Laja, there's a twenty three year old kid upstairs who really doesn't care if the person mothering him is only seven years older than he is."

"Max told you that?" the woman asked in disbelief.

Andrew nodded.  "In so many words... yes."

"I-I was afraid he'd think I was being condescending or... or disrespectful if I tried to be too motherly."

"He'd never think that.  So... what do you think?"

JenniAnn grinned.  "Let's do it!"

Andrew beamed.  "All right.  We'll have Christmas with a stubbly, 5 foot 11 kid."  He chuckled.  "We'll stay here.  No need to go to Cora's without Rex.  We'll be home for Christmas."

"Home for Christmas..." JenniAnn echoed softly, lovingly.  "Could I... or do you think it's too kiddish... if I filled a stocking for him?"

Laughing, Andrew pulled the woman to him and kissed her hair.  "Laja, I think Max would love to have a stocking."

Brimming with excitement and joy, the two began to plot out their celebration.

December 16th, 2012

At half past eight the next morning, Max made his way to the kitchen.  He felt shy and awkward remembering how he'd shown up with no warning the night before.  He prepared himself to find Andrew and JenniAnn waiting for him, exhibiting forced cheer over having their time together interrupted by his meltdown.  He was ready to make his apologies and excuses as he stepped into the kitchen but abruptly halted. 

Andrew was at the counter preparing a fruit salad.  Beside him, JenniAnn was frosting an apple strudel.  The dogs scrambled around their ankles, hoping for dropped tidbits of food.  The table was perfectly and colorfully set for four people. 

JenniAnn noticed Max first and greeted him with a cheery, sincere "Good morning!" before ushering him to the table.

"Hi there, Max!"  Andrew clapped him on the shoulder. 

The happiness... honest happiness... of them both threw Max off.  His apologetic speeches disappeared from his head.  "Good morning, Andrew and JenniAnn," he finally responded.

"You want some coffee to start or I have freshly squeezed orange juice, milk, cranberry juice, apple cider..." the angel counted off.

"Coffee, thanks.  I can get it myself.  Is there anything else I can help with?"

"Rose will be joining us soon and I know she usually takes orange juice with her breakfast.  Could you pour her a glass?" JenniAnn requested.

A smile flickered on Max's lips.  "I'd love to."

While Max was busy with the beverages, Andrew bent down to whisper in JenniAnn's ear.  "I think you should tell him about the change in plans."

"'Kay," she whispered back.  After finishing with her frosting, JenniAnn motioned for Max to take a seat at the table.  She pulled up a chair beside him while Andrew took the chair across from her.  "Max, Andrew and I did some talking last night about Christmas.  Since your dad won't be with us, we thought it might be nice to stay here.  We'll see how many people want to come.  If it's a lot, we'll celebrate at Willowveil.  If it's fewer, we'll spend Christmas Eve and morning here.  Does that sound okay?"

Blinking back tears, the young man nodded.

Andrew gripped his hand.  "You are *not* spending Christmas alone.  And you can count on that.  I'm 'stubborn as always,' remember?"

Max looked up and laughed.  "Yeah, I remember."  And he did.  He remembered the man who had refused to give up on him when he wanted to die in Afghanistan... the man who had fought to save him, fought for Badriya.  "Thank you," he choked out.

Andrew sipped his orange juice then looked intently at his assignment.  "Max, there's something else JenniAnn and I want to talk to you about."

The young man stiffened.  Maybe now was when they were going to, gently and politely, inform him that they needed space.

Andrew grimaced when he saw a look of defeat on Max's face.  It was all too similar to the look he'd had during the early days in Afghanistan, the days when Max had so little will to live.  It had been bad enough when ruthless strangers had brought it about.  It was worse knowing Max's own flesh and blood had hurt him so deeply.  The angel was glad when JenniAnn rested her hand over Max's.  After drawing in a deep breath to calm himself and keep any hint of anger out of his voice, Andrew spoke.  "Max, God knows you deserve a father who is there for you.  And you deserve a happy Christmas season, surrounded by love.  I know... well, it's not the Christmas season you had planned but... if you want to... why don't you stay here for the rest of the holidays?  I know it'd involve a commute to your job but maybe we could..."

Max's eyes filled with tears.  He'd been prepared for the ol' heave-ho and now was hearing the exact opposite.
"Really?" he asked, incredulous.

"Max, I wouldn't offer if I didn't mean it," Andrew vowed.

Tears falling, Max nodded.  "Thank you.  I'd love to.  I... I don't want to go back there.  Ever."

JenniAnn frowned.  "Max, you have to go back just long enough to get your things.  Don't let your father take those away from you.  You need your Harry Potter books and your comic book collection... not to mention clothes.  We'll go with you."  She gently pushed a lock of hair behind Max's ear.  
"But after that... if you don't want to... you don't ever have to go back again."  She met Andrew's gaze over the man's bowed head.  Eyes glittering, the angel smiled as they waited for what she'd just said to sink in for Max.

Max blinked.  "But what about after the holidays?"

"You can stay here with me after them, too," Andrew offered.  "And then, come spring, we can look into getting you your own place if you want."

Max hadn't yet had time to respond when a voice came from the hall.  "There's a lot of space on Selini... near me and Aunt Josephine."

The three turned to see Rose standing in the entry, her eyes glistening.  She hadn't spoken to anyone of it but, like JenniAnn, Rose had worried that Max would drift away.  Unlike JenniAnn, she hadn't absented herself from those he'd leave behind.  The idea of Max living there brought her great peace and happiness.

Max swallowed the lump in his throat.  "I... I'll live anywhere.  So long as it's here.  With all of you.  Thank you.  All of you."  He hugged each of his friends tightly, vowing to himself to never let them go.

December 24th, 2012

With the entire community's exchange of gifts occurring after their caroling venture at the Phoenix on the 22nd, a smaller group was able to share a cozy Christmas Eve night at Andrew's.  They'd finished an amazing dinner, sung carols, and now had gathered in front of the fireplace.  Lady Beth was seated near the fire with Henry beside her.  Yva and Sir Sven sat together on a love seat across from the one Rose and Max occupied.  Rose's aunt Josephine was seated beside them in an old but very comfortable rocking chair.  Andrew, JenniAnn, Raquel, and Nico were gathered on a couch while Owen and C.J. perched on the piano bench.  Adam... Santa as he was currently answering to... read "Twas the Night Before Christmas" from where he sat in Andrew's recliner, some of the Tunnel children clustered around him on the floor.  When Adam was finished and had reappeared in his own clothes, Andrew followed with a moving recitation of "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus."  Then Violeta had accepted Andrew's Bible and begun to read.

Max listened to it all, feeling comfortably drowsy.  His gaze traversed over the faces of all those around him.  It had been over a week since he'd moved in.  It still felt like a dream but he knew he didn't have to worry about waking up.  He smiled gratefully at Andrew.  The man's only sadness stemmed from the fact that his father had made no contact since leaving his note, he'd not even responded to Max's "Merry Christmas" text.  But Max refused to dwell on that.  He'd try to call later and if that didn't pan out then he wasn't going to let it ruin his Christmas.

When Violeta had finished reading the story of the Nativity, people began to stir and prepare to leave.  Eventually, only Rose, Josephine, Max, JenniAnn, and Andrew remained. 

"So what time do you want us to come over?" JenniAnn asked as she and the other women gathered their things. 

"I don't know.  What do you think?  9:00 or so?" Andrew suggested.  "No sense in anyone getting up really early."

"Sounds good to me!" Rose chirped.

"9:00 it is then."  Andrew smiled at them all, his expression taking on a mischievous aspect when his eyes met JenniAnn's.  They'd be performing stocking duty in the wee, small hours of the morning. 

After escorting the women through the tunnel and back to Willowveil, Andrew and Max collapsed into the recliner and couch respectively.  The latter grinned.  "You all know how to party."

Andrew laughed.  "Thank you.  I think so."

Max's face fell.  "I feel like I should try to give my dad a call."

"Sure.  I'm just going to get things in order in the kitchen for tomorrow."  Andrew rose to give Max privacy.  He halted for a moment in the hall, praying that Rex would have the decency to answer his son's call.

The angel had set out the necessary silverware and serving utensils and was just pulling plates and bowls from the cupboards when the command came to him.  Go back to the living room.  Now.  It's time.  Moving as quickly as he could, Andrew returned to where he'd left Max.  He found his assignment staring blankly at his phone.  Max glanced at Andrew then back down to it.

"Disconnected.  Number no longer in service."

Andrew's stomach lurched when he heard the deadened tone in Max's voice. 

"Do you think something happened to him?"

The angel bowed his head.  He knew exactly where Rex Remus was and what condition he was in.  Eli had been given an assignment in Vegas and, the night before, had called Andrew to tell him he thought he'd seen Rex.  To be sure, Andrew had paid his friend a visit.  And there they found Rex... holed up in a seedy motel, drinking with his buddy and engaging in behavior Andrew would never reveal to Max.  That the man was still alive Andrew was sure.  He knew Eli would have contacted him otherwise and, more than that, he knew the Father wouldn't withhold information so vital.  Finally, Andrew looked up at Max and shook his head.  "No.  Your father's still in Vegas.  He just... he..."

"He's left," Max finished, his tone curt.  "I understand.  But how... how do you know where my father is?"

"I have a friend in Vegas.  He told me."

A tear finally slid down Max's cheek.  He slumped onto the couch and held his head in his hands.  "Why am I so easy to leave behind?"

Andrew crouched in front of him.  "Max, you are NOT easy to leave.  You're not.  I... I know."

"How do you know?" Max questioned.

The words wouldn't come to Andrew.  He knew Max needed to know the truth, the full truth.  But how to begin?

Before Andrew could utter another word, a brilliant light filled the room.  Andrew hadn't yet turned around when he heard a familiar voice.

"Andrew knows because he could have left you.  More than once.  But he wouldn't."

Andrew shifted to see Violeta and Adam, the former of whom had spoken.  A moment later, he realized that, like them, he was glowing.

"Oh God..."  Max's voice was hushed.  He stared at Adam and Violeta then back at Andrew.  His hand shaking, Max reached for Andrew's shoulder.  He needed to assure himself he was really there, not some stress-induced hallucination.

"Max, I... I'm an angel," Andrew began.  "I'm an angel of death.  The Father sent me to be with you.  Because He loves you and He knew your were scared and nervous after you'd been wounded in Afghanistan.  I... I thought it was just to reassure you as we traveled from the battlefield where you'd been hurt to the hospital.  But then... then there was the IED and being found by those men and..."

"Oh my God," Max repeated, his eyes growing huge.

"That's right," Adam averred.  "He is your God.  And He loves you, just as Andrew said now and just as Andrew told you countless times when the two of you were in Afghanistan.  God didn't want you to be alone with those men.  So He sent you one of His angels to watch over you.  Usually, in cases like that, we angels of death remain in our true forms; whisperings words of hope, of love, of comfort.  And, if it's their time, we take our assignments Home to Heaven, almost always unseen. 
But Andrew... my friend... he thought it would be easier for you to have both a friend and an angel."  Adam paused and looked proudly at Andrew before focusing on Max again.  "Max, after your transport hit the IED, there was a secondary explosion.  The smoke was thick and visibility was limited.  It would have been easy for Andrew to disappear, to resume his angelic form and be with you that way, serving the Father that way.  But Andrew... he knew that as the days and nights wore on, you would want someone to talk to, someone to share your experience with.  So he remained in human form."

"The... the angel... the angel who protected me..." Max choked out.  "That was..."

Tears streaming down his face, Andrew nodded.  He remembered the moment when their captors had dragged Max out of the cellar and away from him.  When Andrew had suddenly found himself in the room where they'd taken Max and seen two men holding his arms while another moved to punch him, he'd recoiled and flung himself in front of Max.  The young man had gasped in surprise when he felt nothing.  Even through the discomfort, Andrew had been grateful that it had worked.  He'd protected Max and he'd known in that moment that the Father would continue to allow him to.  He would.

"You...  Andrew?" Max checked, reaching again for the angel's arm.

"I had to," Andrew asserted, setting his hand over where Max's rested on his forearm.  "I couldn't... couldn't just watch knowing... you could have died.  I couldn't, Max."

"Those were the only times Andrew resumed angelic form," Violeta clarified, her voice soft.  She knelt in front of Max, her right arm encircling Andrew's shoulders.  "Andrew is my supervisor.  And I... I was so angry when he left.  And I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't think you deserved to have him with you.  Not like that.  But you're a wonderful person, Max.  And you... you deserve to know how loved you are.  You deserved to have someone like Andrew with you.  God is the only Father I've ever known.  He's the only Father any of us angels have.  And sometimes, when I'm here, I miss Him.  A lot.  But with Andrew... I still miss the Father but Andrew's kinda like... like another sort of father.  I'm sorry that your father isn't who you need him to be, who you deserve him to be.  I'm sorry that he's not there for you.  And I wish... I wish you could feel the Father's love as completely and totally and perfectly as we feel it in Heaven.  You will someday.  But maybe... maybe... until then... we could both have the same another sort of father.  I promise you, Andrew takes after his Father.  He... he'll never walk out on you.  Ever."  Pride shown in Violeta's eyes as she gazed at her supervisor.

Adam smiled and wiped at a tear.  It wasn't the most graceful or eloquent revelation he'd ever heard but it cut to the heart.

Andrew hugged Violeta, immensely proud of her, then moved to sit on the couch beside Max. 

Max's heart swelled at Violeta's words but he struggled to make sense of it all.  "Why?  Why did you do that, Andrew?"

"You had so much life ahead of you, Max!  You still do!" the angel of death gushed.  "You were my assignment.  I wanted to do everything I could for you.  And as... as time wore on... I got to know you.  And I just... I wanted to be there for you however I could.  I loved you.  I still love you.  I wanted to tell you everything, Max.  But the time... it just never felt right.  But tonight... tonight the Father told me you needed to know.  His timing is always perfect."

The light around all three angels dimmed and then extinguished.  Max stared at them.  They looked the same as they always had.  He looked to Andrew and saw the man who had given him reason to hope when death seemed so inviting.  He saw the man who had nursed him back to health.  He saw the man who had given him a shark's tooth necklace so he would have something to remind him of home, of freedom.  He saw the man who had invited him to Thanksgiving, welcomed him into his family.  Max saw Andrew, the man he'd wished was his father.  Now he wished it even more.  Overcome, Max wept into Andrew's shoulder. 

Andrew circled his arms around his assignment.  He prayed that Max wasn't upset at him for hiding his identity.  He knew he'd been right to wait, knew it had been the Father's will.  But he still hated to think that Max would think he hadn't trusted him or, worse, had tried to deceive him.

"D-does everyone else know?" Max asked when he'd finally calmed and pulled away.

"Yes.  I'm sorry we hid it from you," Andrew apologized.  "I... I didn't know how to tell you and..."

Max straightened up and shook his head.  "I'm not sorry.  I think... tonight... tonight is when I needed to hear this.  My father is gone.  I know it.  Even if I see him again, I know he's not... not really there.  So tonight I needed to learn that... that someone loves me enough to not walk out on me.  Even when... when things are really bad."  Still in awe, Max stared at Andrew.  "They... they hurt you!  So you couldn't die... I can accept that but... but... your ankle and the bruises a-and..."  He set his hand on his head.  It occurred to Max that had he learned Andrew's identity and his selflessness when the news of his brain injury had been so fresh and troubling, he might not have been able to handle it.  The new was still daunting, still humbling... it still struck him to the core... but he could take it.  Andrew had been happy and relatively healthy for weeks.  Max had seen, too, how full of love his life was. 

Andrew let out a sigh of relief.  While Max was understandably shocked, he wasn't angry and that meant everything.  He shrugged.  "It would have hurt worse to just sit by and watch you be hurt if it coulda been helped.  Physical pain gets forgotten in time.  But the death of someone before their time... that leaves a wound that takes a lot longer to heal."

Max didn't know how to reply.  There were no words.  He could only hope that Andrew knew how grateful he was.  A sudden thought seized him.  "Who else?  Is... is Rose an... angel?"

Andrew laughed.  "No.  Rose is definitely human.  Adam and Violeta are angels, of course."  He smiled at them.  "Also Monica and Tess.  Eli and Henry.  Nigel, too."

Violeta patted Max's hand.  "Remember the night Andrew was in the hospital and a bunch of people came to pray with us?"

Max nodded. 

"A lot of them are angels, too."

Max marveled.  "So... so what happens now?"

Andrew drew in a deep breath.  "Well, my assignment's over now.  Soon I'll start leaving more often.  The Father has other assignments for me and..."  He smiled and took Violeta's hand in his.  "I have some supervising to do." 

"Other assignments?  Does that mean..."  Max cringed.

Adam quickly intervened.  "Not like his assignment with you, Max."

Andrew turned back to Max.  "It won't be like what we went through.  Typically our assignments are much, much shorter and sometimes I can stop here, even for a couple days at a time, during one.  You'll still see me.  Trust me." 

"So I... I can still stay here?" Max checked.

"Of course!  And if you ever need anything and I'm not here, ask any of the girls.  I know Rose would do anything for you and Laja... well... we kind of decided you were... well..."  Andrew blushed and then chuckled.  "You know how you joked over Thanksgiving that you wanted JenniAnn and me to adopt you?"

Max smiled and averted his gaze.  "Now that seems even crazier..."

"Well, we don't see it that way.  We'll, you know, if you ever need a little parental-like guidance or... or support, we're here for you.  And you're getting a lot of love whether you want it or not."  Andrew grinned.

More tears welled in Max's eyes as he returned the smile.  "I do.  And I'll... I'll take the guidance and support, too.  So... you'll still be here tomorrow?"

Andrew nodded.  "Definitely.  Tomorrow will still be exactly as we planned it to be."

Max laughed.  "Well, I didn't really plan on there being angels around."

"Just consider that a fun bonus," Adam suggested with a sly smile.  His expression turned softer when he looked to Andrew.  "Buddy, there's somewhere else you have to be."  He looked to Max again.  "We won't be gone long, not by your standards."

Max blinked back a tear.  "You're taking Andrew to Heaven, aren't you?"

Adam nodded.

Andrew hugged Max.  "I'll see you soon.  Violeta, will you..."

"Not going anywhere."  She smiled first at Andrew then at Max and took his hand in hers.  Together, they watched as Adam and Andrew disappeared into a stunning ring of light.

Max sighed.  "Wow."


The man studied the angel as she stepped away and began to tidy up the room.  "So..."

Violeta kicked an ottoman into place and gazed at him.  "So?"

"Andrew's probably not really thirty seven is he?"

The angel laughed.  "Oh no.  He's waaaaay older than that.  But I can't say how old.  It's a guessing game he has with Rose.  I'm sure once she knows you know Andrew's an angel now, she'll pull you into the game, too."

Max smiled at the prospect but soon another question came to him.  "So... does that mean Andrew won't age?  One day am I going to look like his grandpa?"

Violeta smiled tenderly and shook her head.  "No.  He'll always look older than you.  Usually angels don't age but..."

"But Andrew will...  He chose to," Max guessed.  "Because of them."  He waved to a portrait of the group on Andrew's coffee table.

Violeta squeezed his shoulder.  "Because of you now, too."  She bit her lip and looked shyly at Max.

"You okay?"

Violeta nodded.  "Could I ask you something?"

"Sure.  Only fair."

"You must have, in the last months, formed some sort of story in your head about who Andrew is.  I imagine what you learned tonight probably shook that up a lot.  Is it upsetting to lose whatever it was you'd imagined?  I'm sorry if that's a stupid question.  I'm only fifteen and I've only been on earth with an regularity for fourteen months and I'm trying to get a better understanding of humans," Violeta rushed out, hardly taking a breath.

Max stifled a laugh as he shook his head.  Suddenly a lot about Violeta made sense.  "The truth is even more amazing.  I thought Andrew was some incredibly moral guy who saved my life, sometimes sacrificing his own comfort for me.  And I thought he loved his friends with a depth I'd never experienced.  Now... now I know he's an angel who saved my life and my spirit, sacrificing so... so much for me.  And after what you just said... about Andrew aging... that's a level of devotion I'd never even imagined let alone experienced.  No.  I'm not upset at all... stunned.  Definitely stunned.  But amazed and grateful."

Violeta smiled.  "So it is like Santa..."

Max laughed.  "Huh?"

As Violeta explained her conversation with JenniAnn, Max came to understand just how much planning and discussion had gone on around him.  All of them, not just Andrew, had been watching out for him and trying to bring him joy.  He felt a twinge of guilt as he thought of how ready he'd been to believe that their love and patience had limits.  Max comforted himself with the knowledge that he had a lifetime to make it up to every one of his new friends, his family. 

As unbelievable as it still all was to Max, he felt more settled than he could ever remember feeling.

December 25, 2012

"What the..."

It was 5:30 in the morning and JenniAnn had just stepped into the tunnel that connected Willowveil with Serendipity.  Several yards further into the tunnel, she could see bright twinkle lights and, stranger still, big band music was playing.

"Andrew?  Are you there?  What's going..."  JenniAnn went silent when a very familiar silhouette strode into the center of the tunnel.  He stepped evenly and quickly, no limp and no stiffness.  No walking stick.  After a sharp intake of breath, JenniAnn set off at a run.

Andrew caught her, his face radiant with joy.  "Max knows, Laja.  He knows and he handled it really well!  Last night, shortly after you girls left, the Father told me it was time to tell him.  Adam and Violeta came to help and then... then I went Home."

"Andrew..." JenniAnn hugged him tightly, tears of happiness for him pooling in her eyes.

"Everything's healed.  Well, weight still isn't where it should be.  Hair's still... well, it is what it is.  I'm still going to therapy at the VA with Max.  It'd look just a little suspicious if I showed up next week thirty pounds heavier and with hair down to my shoulders," Andrew mused, a playful twinkle in his eyes.

"As long as you're happy," his friend gushed.

"Very happy.  But... there is one thing I want to do before we get to those stockings and everything...  Last year I told you that one of these years I was gonna get you to do the Charleston with me.  So... how about this year?" 

JenniAnn laughed.  "You didn't rig this floor to open up and cast me into a pool, did ya?"

Andrew chuckled.  "No pool.  Just you, me, a CD, and Someone who I am very, very thankful to for giving me a really wonderful life."

Standing on tip toe, JenniAnn kissed his cheek.  "You deserve a wonderful life." 

The angel hugged her and then, after restarting the track, began to dance.  There were a few missteps but a lot of laughter.

As the song ended and the next track began, the two moved into a slow dance.  Andrew hadn't planned it.  He'd simply grabbed the only CD he could find with "Charleston" on it.  But the next tune seemed perfect.

"Days may not be fair always,
That's when I'll be there always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
But always."

JenniAnn sighed and rested her cheek against the angel's shoulder, feeling as if she were truly home for Christmas


Andrew laughed from behind the video camera as Max and Rose tore through their stockings like two grade-schoolers.  He had to admire JenniAnn's dedication in wrapping even the tiniest of gifts.  Thus far he'd seen them unwrap mini Harry Potter pins, bouncy balls, and even individually wrapped pieces of candy.  Josephine laughed, too, as she watched while enjoying the treats and fuzzy slippers she'd found in her own stocking.  Adam was merrily sporting a turkey hat from his stocking and JenniAnn was patiently explaining to Violeta how to blow the bubbles she'd found in hers.

Finally, the stockings were emptied.  Andrew pulled out his pocket watch and grinned.  "Hmm... right about now a bunch of our friends are probably finding a surprise under their own trees.  But, Max and Rose, JenniAnn and I are afraid you're going to have to hunt for yours."

Rose clapped giddily.  "A scavenger hunt?" she asked hopefully.

JenniAnn nodded and handed them a scrap of paper.  "Here's your first clue."

Rose took the scrap and began to read.  "'Serendipity is safe, that much we know.  But there's one area where thieves always go.  Thankfully, Andrew never gets the least bit mad when he opens this and finds himself without plaid.'"  The young woman laughed.  "Closet!  Andrew's closet!  We steal flannel shirts from there!"

Max laughed.  "What???"

"Will explain later!  Let's go!" Rose cried, practically dragging the man out of the room.

Josephine smiled mischievously at Andrew and JenniAnn.  "What did you two do?"

Andrew handed the elderly woman, Violeta, and Adam envelopes; his eyes bright and filled with merriment.

Josephine peeked inside.  "Oh my..."

Adam looked and began to laugh.  "Well, at least I have a suitable costume."

Violeta struggled to contain her excitement and finally launched herself at Andrew and JenniAnn.  "We're going to..."

"Shhh!" JenniAnn urged as she laughed and hugged the manic angel.

Andrew laughed, too, as he embraced his protege.  "We'll have plenty of time to discuss it later.  Now... how about some carols while we wait?"

The suggestion was eagerly met with agreement.  Adam sat down at the piano and began to play "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."  Seven carols later, Max and Rose returned.

"'Congratulations!  You've made it so far,'" he read as they stepped back into the living room.  "'The prize you've been seeking is under a star.'"

"Star..." Rose puzzled. 

"Mmm... cookies."  Adam reached to a tray in front of him and showily took a chocolate chip.

Andrew smiled and reclaimed the video camera, watching the scene unfold from behind it.

Max laughed.  "On a star-shaped tray.  Subtle, Adam."  He glanced at Rose.  "You want to do the honors?"

Nodding, Rose picked up the tray to reveal two envelopes addressed to herself and Max.

"Well open em!" JenniAnn cried as they stared.

The two picked them up and broke the seals.

All was silent for a few moments.  Then Rose shrieked and nearly knocked Andrew over, the camera saved only by JenniAnn's quick reflexes.  Rose kissed Andrew on the cheek.  "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"You're welcome, welcome, welcome," he replied happily.  "But later on we really need to thank Beth, Mick, and Josef."

Rose hugged Max.  "We're going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!" she gushed.

Max folded his arms around her, peering over her shoulder at Andrew.  "Thank you," he got out, far more quietly than Rose so great was his surprise.

"After I got back from Afghanistan; some friends, who I hope you'll meet soon, made me promise to take everyone on a vacation on them.  So... JenniAnn and I thought this seemed like a good place to take everyone," Andrew explained to Max.  "Merry Christmas!"

When Rose released him, Max hugged JenniAnn.  "Thank you," he murmured.  As excited as he was by the prospect of the trip, the simple fact that he'd been included meant more to him. 

"You're very welcome," JenniAnn replied with happy tears glistening in her eyes.  She stepped back so Max could thank Andrew.

Max gave Andrew a huge bear hug.  "Thank you and... and I love you," he whispered.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd said it or even if he had ever said it.  He only knew that he meant it.

Andrew patted his back, knowing how big a step Max had just made and feeling blessed to be on the receiving end of his words and his trust.  "You're welcome and I love you, too."  When Max stepped away, he smiled at the others.  "I love you all and I'm very glad we're spending this Christmas together."

"Amen to that!" Adam cheered. 

Then there was a flurry of discussion as JenniAnn pulled out some brochures from where she and Andrew had stashed them earlier in the morning.

Andrew watched, smiling, as the other five excitedly pored through the material.  After a few minutes, a flash of movement in the hall caught his attention.  He quietly retreated, just in time to see a petal on his rose begin to turn red.  The angel's eyes darted to his Visitor to the rose and back again.

"It's about a third of the way turned," Andrew whispered.

"Yes."  Joshua reached out and caressed the rose's petals.  He smiled at Andrew.  "You don't have to whisper.  They won't hear."

Andrew smiled sheepishly.  Of course they wouldn't.  "How will I know?" he asked.

"You'll know."


Joshua gave a sly smile.  "I call all times soon."

Andrew laughed.  "I wish JenniAnn coulda heard that... Aslan."  He hugged the man.  "Happy birthday."

"Thank you.  I'm glad you're enjoying it with them."  Joshua peeked into the entry, smiling at the happy scene before him.  "Now that's a great birthday present."  He turned back to Andrew, returning his embrace.  "Awesome work, Andrew."  Joshua stepped back and beamed at the angel.  "Now you better get back in there.  You're missed."

"Andrew?  Are you okay?" JenniAnn called.

Smiling, Andrew nodded.  He couldn't look at Joshua, knowing he'd start laughing if he did.  "Yes, very much okay.  I'll be right in," he replied.

"'Kay," the woman answered.

Andrew grinned at Joshua.  "I'll head back in.  Thank you for coming here, Joshua.  Like this." 

"You know I'm always with you...  But sometimes it's nice to see people.  I remember how it is."  After a wistful smile, Joshua disappeared but his voice lingered.  "I love you, Andrew, and tell them I love them... you do it so well."

"Thank you, I will.  I love you, too," Andrew whispered.  The angel of death took one last look at the rose, thinking of the One who had given it to him and what He had said of it upon Andrew's return Home.  His words had comforted Andrew and brought him great happiness.  Tucking the memory away to remember when he was most in need of assurance, the angel re-entered the living room.  He looked tenderly at his friends.  The past months had seen them all devastated and heartbroken but now there was only laughter and excitement.  Lyrics of a song, not a Christmas carol yet perfect for that moment, came to Andrew: "Alleluia, the great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly!

The storm was over and, with hope in their hearts and God's love surrounding them, Andrew and his family would face the future together... starting with a blissful and merry Christmas Day.

The End

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
"Good King Wenceslaus" by John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Harry Potter by JK Rowling
Matt. 6:10/Matt. 26:42
Life of Pi
It's a Wonderful Life
Matt. 1:18
Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clark Moore
Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus by Virginia O'Hanlon and Francis P. Church
"Charleston" by Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson
"Always" by Irving Berlin
"Hark the Herald Angels Sing" by Charles Wesley
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
"The Great Storm is Over" by Bob Franke

This newsletter is written in thankfulness to John for all the Christmas joy he's brought me over the years.  I know I'm far from alone in that!  From the TBAA Christmas episodes to "Green Christmas" to his Christmas TV movies; John has made me laugh, smile, and cry as I watched.  I hope, no matter how many Christmases on earth are left to me, that he's always a part of them.  I suspect he will be whether that continues to mean watching his work and writing the annual JABB Christmas story or simply thinking with love and gratitude of him.  May God bless us all and may we all try to make the world a better place like John did.  Merry Christmas, John!


JABB 373

(Photo Credits: The photographs used on this page are from "Touched by an Angel" and owned by CBS Productions, Caroline Productions, and Moon Water Productions. They are not being used to seek profit.)