After the service, Eli melted into the crowd to seek out the youth group cohort. Talia loitered near the vestibule, watching folks catching up and wishing one another merry Christmas.
Hank and his wife Gayle stopped to say hello, and another of the diner regulars tipped his hat before joining some friends.
She was so absorbed in her people watching, she didn’t notice Jojo until she was sidling up next to her.
“Talia!” Jojo hugged her fiercely. Talia froze for a moment before the reality of Jojo’s easy affection hit her. “Merry Christmas! Please, please, please sing with us?” She gestured to two other choristers standing nearby who smiled and nodded, then whispered, “I won’t even tell them who you are.”
Reilly was making his way along the center aisle, shaking hands and embracing his people. She could see it in his entire body, how much he loved them.
Jojo caught the direction of her gaze. “I hope it’s okay that he told me what happened. It shook him up.”
The warmth flickered, and an icicle formed in the pit of her stomach. There was only so much of her circus anyone could take. Even her son would tire of it, of her, someday. She sought out Eli among the teens huddled in one corner of the hall, and forced the corners of her lips back up. “Of course. Don’t worry about it.”
Jojo’s brow wrinkled. “I’ll worry if I like. You’re ours, now, you know. We don’t take lightly to that kind of nonsense.” She waved at Reilly over the tops of nearby heads, then gave Talia a significant look. “He doesn’t, either.”
Reilly approached her, hands in his pockets. There was a sparkle in his eyes that was just for her, and the icicle melted away. “Merry Christmas, Talia. I’m glad to see you here.”
His closeness was intoxicating. “Merry Christmas, Reverend.”
She wanted to fold herself into the curve of his shoulder, to rest her cheek in the hollow there.
Jojo leaned over and hugged him. “Merry Christmas, Doc.”
A petite woman with long hair in a frazzled bun took Talia by the arm. “Talia? I’m Helena Jay, Haley’s mom. I just wanted to say, Eli is great. Haley’s taken him under her wing. I’m not sure whether to congratulate you or warn you. Honestly, she’s a force. Anyway, merry Christmas.”
Helena turned to Jojo and Reilly, but Talia sought out her son with his new friends. He was part of this place already. Whether she was ready or not.
“… I’m going to get her to sing with us, Laney. Next Christmas she and Nancy are going to bring the house down.”
Jojo was talking about her. Talia dropped back into the conversation before Reilly’s Girl Friday could get her in trouble. Jojo and Helena had their heads together, but Reilly’s expression was the one that stilled her. His smile was easy, but hope blazed in those kind eyes.
She was part of this place already. Just maybe, she was ready.
Talia cleared her throat. “Is there music for Easter?”
Jojo whooped a hallelujah, and Reilly took her hand in his as the church bells rang in Christmas Day.
Thanks for reading along, and like Reilly, I wish you light in the dark season, however you celebrate it.