Another good thing about being an Andrada? The free pass I got at school on the day of the Christmas concert, on the assumption that I was too busy with the production to deal with class. After all, even if I wasn't a performer, there were all these sound-checks, stage blocking, light and sound system adjustments, and other production details I surely have to attend to.
Of course, I attended to none of those. Instead, I spent the morning at the copy-and-print center making more copies of the storybook. We'd produced almost a hundred storybooks, most of them cheaper, black-and-white reproductions, with a handful of full-color versions. Holding the storybooks in my hands was…indescribable. Each book contained so much more than just words and illustrations. Gabe's pain, the little parol's history, Sister Beth's kindness, Marni's and John's faith in me, my uncle's and brother's unexpected generosity—my own heartbreak and self-discovery—all of these, printed, folded and stapled within a few sheets of copy paper.
That in itself was a miracle in its own right.
That afternoon, I went over to Sister Beth's house to fetch the small table, book stand and table cloth she let me borrow for the event, and set these up on one side of the parking lot. With the addition of some chairs and an ornate lamp from home, our little booth was ready.
John arrived some minutes before the four o'clock Mass. I found him eyeing the booth in consternation—he was supposed to help me set it up but hadn't been able to get away from the café in time. He heard my laughter and turned, and the way his mouth opened slightly made me my heart beat faster. I'd changed into a white cocktail dress, with my hair swept over my shoulder in a side ponytail and held in place by the cat hair-tie he'd given me, and his slow smile and the warmth in his gaze was undeniably gratifying.
My family was already inside the church. Judging from the shock on their faces when I introduced John to them and when I sat beside him instead of with them, Marni had read the situation right. But I wasn't the least bit afraid. John stood tall and confident beside me, and after a while, they turned away, seeming to accept the situation for now.
After the Mass, he and I approached the Nativity, one of the full-color storybooks clasped in my arms. People had already come to give their offerings to the infant Savior; bowls of fruit, bunches of flowers and gift baskets crowded around the foot of the manger. Stepping closer, I laid the book beside the manger.
"For you, Lord. Something to read to boost your cognitive development," I murmured. Then I lifted my gaze to the little parol. "And for you, too, little guy. One day Gabe will find you again, and you'll know everything was worth it."
As I turned to go, I caught sight of John's face, and was startled to find tears standing in his eyes. He shook his head, embarrassed. "Sorry. Pretend you didn't see me indulging in some sentimentalism. Shall we go? Marni's probably waiting already."
She was. While the audience came flowing into the parking lot, and everybody else was setting up onstage, tuning their instruments or changing into their costumes, we took out the books and arranged them on the table. Soon, people began drifting over out of curiosity. We encouraged them to scan the display book, and were endlessly thrilled when we made our very first sale.
Some of my own family came over as well, including my parents who looked both puzzled and amazed, although they did purchase a couple of the black-and-white editions. Ray, to my surprise, bought a copy and even made me sign it.
"Don't forget about us when you become rich and famous, okay?" he said with a grin.
"Ha ha. Go study your pieces," I retorted, squeezing his shoulders in a hug.
Sister Beth dropped by to check on us, and ended up buying a few copies of the book for the preschool library. Before she left, I gave her one of the few full-colored versions. "It's my thank-you to you," I told her. "After all, this is as much your story as well your little one's."
Even Camille came over with some of my ex-choir-mates, although they were more likely drawn by the presence of her hottie of a cousin rather than any affection for me. "What's this? It looks like a bunch of Zoey's doodles," she sniffed, picking up a copy and flipping through its pages.
John gave her an incandescent smile. "Buy a copy, cousin. Better yet, buy a few for Auntie and Uncle, too. That book's a bit of family history, you know. I'll tell you about it later."
Camille and I looked at him in confusion, probably the only time we'd ever agreed on anything. What did he mean by that? Maybe he was referring to his own contribution to the book?
Camille ended up buying a copy, her cousin's appeal winning out over her animosity toward me. Two of her choir-mates also bought copies and even asked me to sign them. One of them shyly confessed: "I inherited your music scores, Zoey, and I love the drawings you made. They're so cute and funny, and they make it easier for me to remember the dynamics. I'm never going to trade those scores away."
"Thanks," I replied warmly. "Those drawings helped me a lot in memorizing my lines. I'm glad they helped you, too."
The chime signaling that the concert was about to start rang out, sending a jolt through us. "Shouldn't you be on standby yourself?" Camille told me.
I turned worriedly to Marni and John. "Are you sure you want to do this? You guys could be watching the concert instead of minding the booth."
"For the last time, yes," Marni sighed. "We can watch the concert just fine from here. Go do your page-turny thing already. Kick those pages' butts, Zoey."
"Wait, but what about you, John? This is your first time watching the Christmas concert. You should be—"
"It's not my first time," he cut in gently. "I've watched these Christmas concerts before."
"Yeah, he's right," Camille added as I stared at John in bewilderment. "My mom says that before they moved away, he and his parents never missed these concerts. Come on, let's go."
The concert began in an explosion of music. The air was warm despite the cool, evening breeze, heated by the stage lights and by a rush of energy. Even someone as unmusical as I was could still revel in the sheer power and beauty of the music, could still feel my emotions soaring and dipping and rising again along with the rhythms and harmonies. These were the moments when I was fully and completely an Andrada. No matter what happened, this would always be a part of me.
During down-times, I darted back to check on our booth. Marni and John would excitedly report that this child or this girl from our class or this couple bought a copy. But as the concert progressed, I noticed that a lot of copies still remained unsold. The meager number of sales was disheartening, but I figured it was okay. Our intention was to get the story of Gabe's little parol out there, and we managed to do just that. That was—had to be—enough for me.
Then another miracle happened.
The Christmas concerts traditionally ended with a rendition of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah, to be performed onstage by all the performers. Before that, Dad, as conductor of the orchestra and overall music director, would address the audience and thank them for coming. He would also thank the performing groups, soloists and production crew for the time and effort they offered in this thanksgiving concert dedicated to our Lord. And finally, on behalf of the entire Andrada family, he would thank everyone for their support, then invite everyone to sing along with the words being flashed on a screen and wish everyone a Merry Christmas.
Tonight was no different—until he got to the last part of his speech. "And finally, I would like to thank my daughter, Zoey, for making this an extra special night," he suddenly said, sending a jolt of electricity through me. Smiling hugely, he gestured toward where I stood at our booth with Marni and John, and the spotlight followed, bathing all three of us in blinding brightness.
"Tonight is my daughter's debut as a writer and illustrator of children's stories, with the help of her two very good friends, Marni and John," my Dad continued, stumbling only slightly over John's name. "Since the time of my father, Teodoro Andrada, these concerts have been our family's way of thanking the Lord God who blessed us with our individual gifts, and of sharing these gifts with the community. And tonight, we mark the night the Andrada family gives thanks to the Lord through more than just our music, but through our art and literature as well."
The audience broke into enthusiastic applause, and I was close enough to Marni to hear her say "Oh my God" in a tiny voice. Then Dad proceeded to plug my book to the high heavens, encouraging everyone to drop by the booth and buy a copy. Finally, he gestured for the audience to rise, turned around, raised his baton…and music glorious enough to summon all the angels resounded through the air.
And I sang. Uncaring of my lack of musical ability or my status in my family, I sang. I smiled at Marni, who smiled back as she sang just as loudly. I slipped my hand into John's, who squeezed it back hard. And I sang my heart out. I sounded horrible, I'm pretty sure of it, but it was beautiful nonetheless.
And the music in my soul reawakened and took flight.