Sometime during the post-production party, John disappeared.
The party was being held at the church basement. Most of my relatives were there, and as with any celebration involving the Andradas, music filled the hall and spilled out into the night. I prowled among the tired but jubilant people who were unwinding by gorging on food and wine, and reliving the evening's high points. Despite Dad more or less abusing his position onstage to promote my work, my relatives still treated me as if I was an outsider, addressing me with careful politeness and shifting the conversation away from music until I left. But to my surprise, the pain of their rejection had already faded into a momentary stinging. Maybe one day, the hurt would disappear completely. Or maybe it wouldn't. Either way, I knew now what to do: keep moving forward, one little step at a time.
Marni had left earlier with her parents, one of the last remaining full-color storybooks tucked underneath her arm. After the concert, people surrounded our booth to check out the books; by the end of it, only a few black-and-white copies were left. I was exhausted but flying so high you could have tied a piece of string to me and turned me into a balloon. Judging from the huge smiles on their sweaty faces, Marni and John felt the same.
Speaking of John, where on earth was he?
I scanned the hall, hugging the last full-color copy to my chest. Instead of a tall, ponytailed figure, I spotted Sister Beth chatting with the parish priest. Remembering that I had one more request to ask of her, I headed over and tapped her on the shoulder.
She turned to me, her round face faintly flushed and her eyes twinkling more brightly than usual—I suspected the glass of wine in her hand might have had something to do with it. "Hello, Zoey, our star for the evening," she said effusively. "What a night you have had, dear. Wonderful work, wonderful. The little one has waited for this day for so long."
Definitely the wine, I thought, amused. "About that, Sister Beth…You've helped me so much already, but I have one more favor to ask."
"Of course, child. What is it?"
"When Christmas is over, could I be the one to keep the parol? I promise I'll take care of him and hang him at the Nativity every Christmas so everybody can see him, so…"
I trailed off when her eyebrows lifted in surprise. I knew very well it wasn't a small thing I was asking of her. For Sister Beth, that handmade Christmas star was her treasure, her precious memento of a little boy who'd tried to save his sister's life. She'd rescued it from abandonment and taken care of it all these years; now here I was asking to take her treasure away.
But in the course of writing and drawing its story, I'd grown to love that little paper parol. With his angel and Baby Jesus drawings and gold-foil tails, he'd become more than the instrument of Gabe's fervent but unanswered prayer. For me, the parol was a reminder of the night Sister Beth revealed my own gift to me. He marked the first time I learned how sweet it was to work passionately on something you loved. He stood for friendship, unbelievable loyalty, and shared achievement. That parol was my emblem now, the star that marked my new path, reassuring me that no matter what happened in the future, I would always find my way back home.
After what seemed like an interminable length of time, her face creased into a smile. "Zoey, I would gladly give him to you, but the little one isn't mine to give. You have to ask the one who made him."
"The one who—Gabe?" I frowned. "But he isn't even here. You said you didn't know where he was. Did you find a way to contact him or something?"
I became even more confused when she laughed. "Oh, I believe so. But as for that, dear, you'll have to ask John."
"John?" I echoed. What did he have to do with Gabe?
Then I recalled some of the odd things John had said. Like the parol's story having something to do with his and Camille's family history. And his revelation that tonight's Christmas concert wasn't the first one he'd been to, meaning he'd been here before, in Gabe's old hometown, at least once in the past. And his absolute commitment to helping me, a virtual stranger, finish my storybook, not to mention the powerful impact the parol's story seemed to have made on him personally. Ever since I'd met him, I'd been living in a dreamy, rose-tinted haze, pretending to myself that he was spending time with me and helping me because he was as attracted to me as much as I was to him. But it was now becoming clear that that might not be the case at all.
I get the feeling that Gabe is out there somewhere, and this is one story he needs to hear, he'd said. But it wasn't just a feeling, was it? John knew Gabe was out there, because he knew him. For John, it probably was personal. It was family.
I nodded slowly, trying to ignore the ache in my chest. "I understand. And I will ask him. Have you seen him, by the way? I can't seem to find him any—"
All of a sudden, I knew where he was, even before Sister Beth answered, "I think he went out a while ago." After thanking her, I slipped out and made my way up to the church. Sure enough, I found him standing in front of the Nativity, gazing at the little parol.
He turned as I started toward him. "Zoey," he said softly, seemingly not the least bit surprised to find me there.
I gave him a tentative smile. "Hi. You keep ending up here somehow."
"Yeah. Funny about that," he replied. "I was just about to go look for you. There's something I have to tell you."
I shook my head. "No need. I already know about you and Gabe, although it took me a while to figure it out." I could see I surprised him this time, and while he stared at me, at a loss for words, I held the storybook out to him. "This is yours, John, along with part of the earnings. It's your book, too, after all. And I know I've said this before, but thank you. For everything. And—and if it's okay with you, there's one other thing I'd like to ask of you."
"What is it?" he asked as he took the book from me.
"When you meet Gabe again, could you tell him 'thank you' for me?" He frowned and opened his mouth, and I quickly raised a hand to forestall any denials. "I know he probably won't appreciate the gesture, if he even cared at all. I mean, who knows how long it's been?" I began, struggling to shape my jumbled thoughts into words. "But I want him to know that even though he threw it away, the parol he made wasn't worthless. It might not have helped his sister, but it made a difference in my life. I just want him to know that the things he does do mean something to someone, even if he might not know it. So—so could you tell him that for me? And while you're at it, could you ask him if I could have his parol? I asked Sister Beth but she told me to ask him…John? Are you okay?"
He'd closed his eyes and tilted his head back by the end of my speech, keeping me from seeing his expression. Then, without a word, he turned, unhooked the parol from the roof of the hut, and handed it to me. "He's yours," he said, his voice sounding oddly hoarse.
I laughed as I accepted it. "Okay, thanks, although I did mean after Christmas. Our Lord still needs him. And you still have to ask Gabe even though I'm keeping him any—"
"Gabe knows, Zoey. He knows everything. About your story, about your feelings, everything."
My laughter died away. "What do you mean? How could he know?"
John closed his eyes again and exhaled. "Because he's me. I'm Gabe," he confessed.
I stared at him, waiting for my brain to pick itself up from where it had tripped and fallen. "But your name's not Gabe," I pointed out in a small voice.
He smiled a tad ruefully. "Yes, it is. My name before my mom remarried was John Gabriel Mendoza. Everyone in school used to call me Gabe because we already had two other Johns. After we moved away, I dropped the Gabriel and just went with John."
"You…" I swallowed, trying to get some moisture down my suddenly dry throat. "You're Gabe? You really are? How is that—oh my God, Bea," I breathed as another realization hit me. "You told me Sister Beth remembered Gabe's sister's name, but it was you, wasn't it? Oh my God, I'm such an idiot. I mean, hello, how could Sister Beth know Gabe's—your baby sister's name?" I finished with a slightly hysterical laugh.
He moved toward me and I backed away from him reflexively, needing space to take it all in. He stopped in his tracks, looking pained. "Zoey…"
"Why didn't you tell me?" I could hear the accusation in my voice, but didn't try to stop it. I twisted my hair into a rope as my mind sifted through my memories of the time I'd spent with John—no, with Gabe. I wanted to lash out at him for letting me go on and on about Gabe and his parol as if I had the slightest idea what I was talking about and embarrass myself so thoroughly. My body quivered with pent-up energy, ready to run; if I'd had my bike, I'd have jumped on it and flown out of there. Instead, I turned aside and hunched over, hiding my face from John's.
"I'm sorry, Zoey. Just hear me out, okay?" John said pleadingly. "In the beginning, I didn't tell you because I'd forgotten about it. Or I thought I had. But when you told us what you intended to do, it all came back to me. But I still didn't tell you because—I don't know." He made a frustrated sound. "At first, it felt as if the Gabe you were talking about was a completely different person. But your story about the parol threw open these doors inside me so the old feelings came rushing back in, and I couldn't—it was something I had to deal with on my own. But I did plan to tell you after I'd settled everything."
"Sister Beth knew who you were, didn't she?"
"Yes. She recognized me that day when we first talked to her. Believe me, I never meant to lie to you or make a fool out of you. I'm so sorry—Zoey, look at me. Please."
I couldn't. I was angry, disappointed, and mortified beyond belief. John was Gabe all along? No wonder he was so willing to help me. It was his story I was telling. And well, now at least I knew where I stood with him. It wasn't that he liked me at all, it was just that he…that he…
He needed you, a voice seemed to whisper in my ear. He needed what you alone could give.
I blinked, a thought spreading through me like liquid light, calming my roiling feelings. Ah. So I've been an instrument, just as much as the parol had been. For some reason, I thought of Lolo Teo. I could swear I heard him say: To be an instrument is the highest calling of any musician.
"Just tell me one thing, John—Gabe. John Gabriel," I heard myself say. Turning to face him, I lifted the parol in my hands, then pointed at the storybook in his. "Did I get your story right?"
His expression revealed a wealth of emotions, until it finally settled on understanding, burgeoning joy, and something else I didn't dare give a name to. "John. Just call me John," he answered, his voice rough and amused. "And yes, you did, Zoey." He began moving closer to me, and this time, I didn't back away. "All my life, I've felt so angry and betrayed, and I didn't even know it. I thought I'd erased those feelings completely, but the truth was I didn't," he said, touching the scar on his eyebrow.
"So I came to this town, back to where it began. Actually, it was weirder than that," he admitted with a self-conscious laugh. "I dreamt about this town some months ago, and since then, the feeling that I had to come here kept growing. But when I got here, I didn't know what exactly I was supposed to do. I was convinced I was just wasting everybody's time, until the night you nearly ran over me with your bike."
He moved closer still, close enough for him to reach up and stroke my cheek with his thumb. "You showed me where I needed to go, Zoey. Because of you, I saw how the things that happened in my past connected to everything in my present. And you're right. It was all worth it in the end."
I gazed up into his eyes and smiled, feeling his warmth and light flowing out of him and into me—or was it the other way around? I didn't know. But when he cupped the side of my face and lowered his head until his forehead rested against mine—when he whispered, "Thank you, Zoey"—it didn't matter in the least. We stood there before the Nativity, his parol in my hand, my storybook in his, and his joy was my joy, and my joy his.
After a while, we separated, and he returned the parol to his position above the Baby Jesus' head. Then he took my hand, and together we walked out of the church and into the cool night. We lingered at the church entrance, bathed in the multihued glow of the lights and Christmas stars, neither of us in a hurry to rejoin the party or go home just yet.
Sensing the shift in my mood, John glanced down at me. "Hey, what is it?"
I bit my lip, wondering if I should tell him how I felt. Everything was going so well. John had made peace with his past, I'd started moving toward my future, and we were—whatever we were. Should I ruin things by burdening him with a confession he might not want to hear?
He turned to face me, tilting my face up with a finger underneath my chin. "You've got something on your mind. Come on, out with it."
But in two weeks, he was leaving. In two weeks, I might never see him again. Could I afford to leave things unsaid between us that I would end up regretting in the future?
Keep moving forward. "I was thinking about, well, about what you said," I began, reaching up to wind my hair around my hand. "And I know you're grateful to me and everything but...is that all? Is that the only reason you're with me—"
He leaned down and brushed his lips against mine.
When my heart floated back to earth, I tried again. "A-anyway, I just wanted to tell you that the time I've spent with you was the happiest I've ever been. I'm so glad I nearly ran over you that night, John. I'm so glad I met—"
He dropped another kiss on my mouth.
"Um, um, you might think I'm rushing here, but you're leaving in two weeks, and I want to make sure you know that I like you. I—I really like you, John. I mean, really, really like—"
He kissed me again, his lips twitching with laughter.
"Um, um, and if you could just stop interrupting me for one teensy moment, I want to ask if you like me, too."
He began to laugh in earnest as he pulled me close to him and touched his forehead to mine. "Zoey, Zoey, you're the only girl who makes me feel like smiling from every part of me," he said, before whispering in my ear: "Zoey no koto suki de tamaranai."
I drew back to look into his face. "What? Is that Japanese? What does it mean?"
"I'll translate it for you."
Then he kissed me again—a long, warm, thorough, and above all proper kiss this time. When we separated, I opened my eyes and grinned up at him. "You know, I still don't get it. Could you translate it for me again?"
John grinned right back. "If you want a verbal translation, you'll have to wait until I come back."
Bright, blazing hope streaked through me. "You're coming back? You mean, here? To our town? Really?"
"Yes, really," he replied after kissing me again. "I'll have to go back to Japan for a while to straighten out my documents, but I'm coming back here. I've decided, Zoey. I'm going to college here, and I'm going to stay put here from now on. Now that I've finally found my home—" he kissed me again "—I won't be going anywhere else."
"Yes!" I squealed, throwing my arms around his neck and hugging him tight while he laughed and hugged me back.
You know, to this day, I marvel at how funny and wonderful it is the way little things turn into big things. Like a cap I'd once forgotten in a music room. Or an odd dream about a childhood hometown. Or a little paper parol with the drawing of the infant Jesus and an angel who always seems to be winking at me every time I look at it from its place of honor on the window beside my office desk.
But that's what our lives are made of—precious little miracles strung together to form an endless, magnificent chain.. I never forgot that lesson, my little Bea, and neither has your father. And neither must you. So live in the moment, daughter, and keep moving forward.
Love from your mom,
Thank you so much for sticking with the story up until the end. Thank you even more for leaving a review or a comment or a suggestion about the fic. Honestly, I welcome the feedback, as I really need to get this story edited/reviewed, and I'm far too broke to afford a professional editor. So thanks in advance, ahaha.
This story is dedicated to my ten-year-old daughter, house artist and partner-in-crime. It's also dedicated to you, chocme, as always. Merry Christmas, sister.
And Merry Christmas to all of you. ^_^