“So how can I help you?” the priest asked.
Chris wiped his eyes. “My little girl. She has disappeared, and I fear the worst may have happened to her.”
“My niece. But I have full custody and full responsibility for her. My brother died in the war, overseas, and her mother is also presumed dead. I promised to watch over her and take care of her, and I failed her. We are the only family either of us has.”
“Your niece,” the priest voice sounded curious, but intended to comfort Chris.
“You may know her,” Chris just realized. “When I used to work on Sundays, Missus Minelli, my neighbor, used to bring her here to church.”
The priest had to think for a minute before he came out with it. “Lilly.”
Chris nodded. “I’m the Christopher you may have heard about.”
“Uncle Chris,” the priest nodded, and smiled, but Chris could not smile. “She disappeared?”
“In the middle of the night,” Chris confessed. “I woke up and she was gone.”
The priest paused to look toward Mary. He seemed to see something. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “You found no sign of violence. You must believe Lilly is fine, and I have a feeling that you will find her, safe and sound.”
Chris tried to nod. “I am glad someone feels that way.” He sniffed to control his emotions. “I have not done her much good. I have a college degree, but I haven’t been able to find a job worth much, and even those I found, I haven’t been able to keep. Maybe if she is safe and sound, maybe she is better off without me.”
“We are always better off with each other.”
“Maybe,” Chris shrugged. “After these few years with Lilly, I don’t much like the prospect of being alone.” He tried hard to avoid crying again.
The priest pointed to Mary. “But you do not appear to be alone. You have one who cares about you. I believe she may help you find the way you need to go. I have seen that look before, you know.”
Chris shook his head. He did not understand what the priest was talking about. He also stared at Mary for a minute. The angel could not be seen.
“Please,” Mary begged, though only the angel heard her. “Please, most holy one.” The angel let out the smallest sliver of a smile.
“You said your heart belonged to the one who bears the Spirit of Christmas.” the angel said.
“It does…I…” Mary had to pause and think about that. “I love the dear old man. And I cried when his Missus went over to the other side. I cried every day when he sat by her bedside and held her hand. I cried when he said good-bye. I cry, still. Oh, but he is so old now, and sad. Surely his time is ending.” Mary wiped a small tear from her eye. “Oh, but Chris makes me feel all the love, joy, and peace of Christmas, just to look at him…” Mary had to pause again to think about what her heart wanted to propose. It would be asking a lot. “Maybe Chris could come to Christmas Town and share the burden, to give the dear old man a rest.” She fell silent, and prepared for whatever answer she might receive.
“He may be the one, I cannot say, but he will have to come the long way around.”
“We will,” Mary said, with some hope in her voice.
“He will have to find out about Lilly on his own. You cannot tell him about her.”
“I won’t,” Mary said, with determination.
“He will be tested. He will be tested in the heart where no words can go. If he fails a test or turns back at any time, he will find himself home, alone, with no memory of you or that he ever started the journey.”
Mary dropped her eyes once again. “I understand,” she said. The angel offered her a gift of hope. It would not do to argue.
“You will have to tell him who you really are, and show him.”
“No. It needn’t be now. But it must be soon. It will also be a test.”
Mary began to cry for fear that he might not like her the way she really was. Some humans seemed thrilled to find their fantasies come to life, but most refused to believe it, and some feared it and accused anything non-human as being demonic and of the devil. It would be a great risk to reveal herself, but the angel was right again. Chris would have to know long before he got anywhere near the Christmas village.
“I will do it,” she said, with determination creeping back into her voice.
“Good,” the angel responded, and nearly let out the full smile. “Plum and Roy will come in the morning to help guide him in the way you need to go.”
“Plum and Roy?” Mary suddenly sounded uncertain again. “Must it be them?” Mary’s phone got a text message.
“They were charged to watch the apartment, and watch Chris and Lilly over these many months. Plum and Roy are the ones to guide him. That is how it must be,” the angel said, and vanished utterly from that place.
Mary looked up at a sound. Chris left off his cry and looked up at the same sound. A couple of men came in a side door, carrying statues of two wise men. One looked like a priest, and he spoke to the other.
“George. Did you forget to relock the side door?”
“I must have,” George admitted.
“The church is closed right now,” the priest said, nice and loud. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“Father?” Chris said, and turned around, but the older priest he had been speaking with disappeared as surely as Lilly disappeared.
“We were just looking for a place to pray,” Mary said, nice and loud in response, as she walked over to stand beside Chris. “Thank you, but we have what we need.” She put out her hand. Chris took it without hesitation, and stood, but he looked at her with curiosity and some concern.
“George, would you let them out,” the priest said, and George pulled out some keys and stood to wait for them to move.
“It’s all right,” Mary encouraged Chris. “I know what we need to do to find Lilly.” She gently drew him toward the door.
“What? You had a vision of some kind?”
Mary shook her head. “I got a text,” she said, and paused to smile for George as they squeezed out the door and heard it lock behind them. “We need to start by going home.”
Chris dropped Mary’s hand, but he did start to walk slowly toward the apartments. He could not think of what else to do. It started getting late, and he felt emotionally worn out. “Will she be home?” he asked.
Mary shook her head, and handed her phone to him. He read the text out loud.
“From Plum and Roy? We were contracted to watch the apartment over the weekend and saw the ones who took Lilly. Lilly is fine, but Roy followed them and we know where she is being taken. We will come around on Monday morning and take you to her. Be prepared for a week-long journey. No passport needed. Roy says sorry. No charge for our service, but donations accepted.”
They walked the whole way without a word, Mary’s face scrunched-up in deep thought. She could not imagine telling Chris that she was in fact a Christmas elf. She worried about how he might react. She worried that he might not like her anymore.
They checked with Missus Minelli, found Lilly had not returned, and went into Chris’ apartment to sit and wait.
“Nothing will happen until tomorrow,” Mary said. “Monday morning.”
Chris sat on the couch and Mary sat beside him. She took his hand again, with the idea that she would offer whatever comfort she could muster, but her nervousness came out instead. She began to worry his hand. She kept looking up into his stone-like face. She decided she could not imagine what he might be thinking. He surprised her. He bent toward her and kissed her smack on the lips, and she kissed him back with her whole heart. They separated slowly.
Chris and Mary sat, staring at each other for several more minutes, not moving, and not making a sound. Finally, Mary thought to say something.
“I think we finished the macaroni and cheese. I could scramble some eggs.”
Chris laughed. He laughed so hard, he fell off the couch. It sounded like a kind of nervous laugh, but Mary laughed as well, empathic elf that she was. Chris laughed himself to tears, before he finally stood and calmed enough to speak.
“I’m not really hungry. I think I need to go lie down.” He went to his room.
Mary curled up on the couch and cried a little. “Please don’t let this be the end of it,” she thought out loud. She seemed to feel like it might work out. At least she did not disappear from the room, as the angel said, if he failed a test. So, when the sun set, she slept, with only a brief prayer for happy dreams.