This story takes place the day after Can’t Buy Me Love ends!
In the three short months that David Carlyle had been minister of Invertary’s Presbyterian church, no one had told him not to appoint Lorraine Ferguson as the organizer of the Christmas Day play.
Somebody should have.
Standing at the front of the church as the congregation filed in, each holding a vigil candle, a cold sweat broke out on David’s brow. One that had nothing to do with the snow outside. No, this was due to the number of naked flames in shaky hands, in a church that was decorated with bales of hay.
“It’s a barn theme,” Lorraine had told him, practically bouncing from excitement. “The Baxter farm is lending us some real sheep to add atmosphere. But don’t worry. I’ve organized the youth group to clean up after them.”
David glanced over at the sheep gathered in a pen set up at the front of the church. There were eight of them. They’d come with strict instructions not to dye them pink.
He blinked at the sheep before scanning the bales of hay piled beside them. Then his gaze strayed to the sheaves of hay tied to the end of each pew. Lastly, it came to rest on the candles in the hands of his congregation. The same hands that also held very flammable song sheets.
They were all going to die.
He’d joined the church to avoid burning in hell. Instead, he was going to burn in his own church. And people said God didn’t have a sense of humor…
“Reverend Carlyle,” Caroline McInnes said as she came up beside him.
Normally people just smiled at him as they took their seats, as though some great divide existed between them. But not Caroline. As a member of the town’s council, a successful partner in an arts management agency, and wife of a world-famous singer, there was little that fazed Caroline. On top of all that, she’d been a librarian before marrying Josh. You couldn’t intimidate a librarian. Everybody knew that.
“Merry Christmas, Caroline.” David gave her a genuinely warm smile. “What can I do for you?”
She tucked some stray hair from her sleek blonde bob behind her ear. “I feel I should apologize. I’ve been so busy that I haven’t been able to get you up to speed on the congregation, and the different factions within it. As a member of the church social committee, I’ve been lax. I’m so sorry.”
“Nothing to worry about. I’m picking things up as I go.” Like maybe he shouldn’t have trusted a recent drama graduate with the Christmas play. “Do we have fire extinguishers in the church?” Please, God…
“Yes.” She lowered her voice. “I’ve asked my husband and a few others to gather as many as they could and dot them around the sanctuary.”
“Everything they say about you is true, isn’t it?” David said. “You can organize anything.”
Her smile was sweet. “Have you spent any time with my husband and kids?” She shook her head. “No, I can’t organize everything. But, if I had been around, I would have suggested that you paired Lorraine with Joanne Baird. Joanne has organized many a play and works as a health and safety inspector for the Fort William Council.”
“Is she here?” Would she shut them down? Did that question sound too hopeful?
“She’s visiting family in Australia.”
“That’s a pity because this is a disaster waiting to happen.” It was only a matter of time before someone set one of their song sheets alight. If they didn’t get the hay first. “It’s too late to stop this, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Caroline patted his arm. “But we have the fire extinguishers now and people manning them. It’s the best we can do.”
“Next year…if we’re still alive…I’ll make sure Lorraine has someone supervising her.”
“Probably a good idea,” Caroline said with a sympathetic nod before she returned to her seat.
A glance at the clock on the back wall told him it was time to get started, but he was changing the order of things. The thought of people standing with candles lighting their carol sheets was just too much for him. He was only thirty-five. Way too young to die.
He hurried over to where Lorraine waited at the door beside the pulpit. The one that led to the vestry, where Lorraine planned to stay while she narrated the play over the PA system. Apparently, her acting career had been cut short because she vomited every time she stood in front of an audience.
“I think we’ll go straight into the play,” he said. “People are eager to see it. Is it okay with you if we dump the first carol?”
Black curls bounced around her face as she nodded enthusiastically, making him wonder if he’d ever been that young. “We’re totally ready. This is going to be awesome. Aren’t the sheep amazing? And they don’t even smell that much.”
“Aye, they’re…” He couldn’t lie to her. “They’re sheep,” he said at last.
Lorraine didn’t seem fazed by his lack of enthusiasm. “You are so much cooler than the last vicar. He would never have let us have sheep in the church.” She lowered her voice. “He was seriously old and crabby.”
David wasn’t really sure what to say to that either, other than the old vicar had managed to take care of the church for thirty years without it burning down. David would be lucky to make it to his three-month anniversary—which was at eight o’clock that evening.
“I’ll settle the crowd, and we’ll get started straight away,” he said.
She gave him a thumbs up.
With a flick of a switch, David turned on his mic and went back to face the congregation. “Merry Christmas,” he called. And was pleased when the congregation answered with their own greetings. “There’s been a change of plans. We’re going to head right into the play. But first, why don’t we put down our song sheets and keep them away from the flames while we watch?”
There was laughter and the sound of rustling paper.
“Take it away, Lorraine,” he said as he sat in the front row.
The lights snapped out, and the church fell into darkness, making him realize that the blinds had been dropped on all the windows. A low droning sound came out of the speakers before a voice reverberated through the room.
“It was the night before Christmas,” Lorraine said in a deep, dramatic voice. “Only no one knew it was Christmas yet because the Christ hadn’t been born.”
Hearing a choking sound behind him, he glanced back to see Josh grinning widely. David’s shoulders slumped; this was going to be a whole lot worse than he’d imagined. He should have watched the dress rehearsal the day before, but he’d been too busy perfecting his first Invertary Christmas sermon. It wasn’t a mistake he’d make again—if he didn’t die in a blaze of fire.
“So,” Lorraine said. “It wasn’t really the night before Christmas. It was just another night…a magical night…full of wonder…and one big star.”
A spotlight snapped on above them. Illuminating a young boy dressed in a silver star costume and suspended from the ceiling by a rope on a pulley. As people gasped and the boy waved at his parents, David’s eyes were on the rope. Which was tethered to a huge hook in the far wall. Had that hook always been there? Was the boy safe?
Dear God, had the kid been hanging above his head all this time?
“Shepherds were tending their sheep in a field, under the huge star,” Lorraine said.
Three kids popped up from inside the sheep pen. They were all dressed in bathrobes with tea towels on their heads. And yet again, David wondered if they’d been there all along.
“Hark,” a shepherd shouted. “I see a star up yonder.”
There was strangled laughter from behind David. Another glance in that direction told him that Josh had been joined by his friend Mitch, and both of them were trying to laugh quietly.
“That’s a very big star,” the shepherdess shouted. “It can’t be normal.”
“No,” the star yelled back. “I’m not normal.”
“A sheep peed on my feet,” the third shepherd wailed.
“Shut up,” snapped the first shepherd.
“I’m not a normal star,” the star called over the wailing. “I’m a messenger star.”
“Yes,” Lorraine said as the child with the pee-covered feet kept crying. “Long ago, before there was the internet, God spoke to lots of people at once through big stars that everyone could see.”
There was a tap on his shoulder, and David looked back to find Caroline. “The biblical teaching around here has been lacking for quite some time. Reverend Morrison usually spent his sermon time shouting at people who annoyed him.”
“Behold,” the star called. “There’s a baby coming to Bethlehem. Right now, he’s still inside his mum, but soon, he’ll be in a stable. You need to find the stable baby and tell everyone he’s really a king. Take him a sheep. You can’t go to see him emptyhanded.”
The shepherds nodded at each other before one of them took a sheep—wearing a collar and lead—and they walked up the center aisle to the doors, then down the aisle at the wall to get back to the front of the church. Meanwhile, the main doors crashed open, and a pantomime donkey trotted in. Beside the donkey walked Mary and Joseph.
“Shouldn’t Mary be on the donkey?” Josh whispered.
Obviously, Mary didn’t want to ride when she could show off her pregnancy walk. She waddled down the church, her hands on her belly, moaning as she went.
“The baby’s coming,” she wailed. “It wants out. Argh, the pain. The pain! I need to lie down. I need a midwife. I need painkillers.”
As the congregation giggled, the front half of the donkey appeared to be trying to tap dance his way down the aisle.
“Behold,” Joseph shouted. “A star. That must mean something.”
“I hope it means there’s a hospital nearby,” Mary wailed.
“The young couple were on their way to Bethlehem,” Lorraine said through the speakers. “To register to vote.”
David groaned. Vote? Listening to this was agony!
“The star was very bright,” Lorraine said, “and it helped them find their way in the dark.”
At the front of the church, a cardboard hut with the word ‘Hotel’ painted on it was dragged onto the stage, and a little girl came through the small door cut out of it.
“I am the innkeeper,” she told Mary and Joseph. “My hotel is fully booked. There are no free rooms. All the town is booked because of the voting. This is a very bad time of year to come to Bethlehem. You should have booked in advance.”
“There must be somewhere we can stay,” Joseph said. “My woman is about to pop.”
The innkeeper let out a heavy sigh. “I suppose you could stay in my barn.” The innkeeper pointed to the pulpit, where bales of hay had been piled up. “It has hay, which will keep you warm, but I’m charging double because this is a sellers’ market. And you can’t annoy my animals.” At her words, several tiny kids dressed in random animal costumes popped out from behind the hay.
“Is that an elephant?” Mitch said, sounding strangled.
“This is totally unfair,” Joseph grumbled as he paid.
As Joseph helped a groaning Mary up the steps to the hay, another spotlight came on—this time pointed at the back of the church. It focused on a table, which had a chair on top of it, and on top of the chair, stood an angel.
“Oh, that isn’t safe,” Caroline said.
“Bark,” the angel shouted, making Josh almost choke to death. “I am a herald angel. I usually sing, but we didn’t have a piano player who could come to rehearsal, so I will speak and tell you that I have told three important kings that they need to come to visit the baby Jesus, who is not yet born, but we know his name because God already told it to his mother, and she told the rest of us, and she also told us that her baby is going to be king and save us all from the evil Herr-Herro-Herdod once it’s grown up and everything, not right now because he’s a baby, and babies can’t do anything except cry and sleep and poop their nappies.” The angel sucked in a deep breath. “I have told the kings to follow the message star.”
The doors leading to the front of the church slammed open, and three kids dressed like sparkling Christmas decorations walked in.
“I have brought Frank’s stink scents,” one called as he held up his gift-wrapped present.
“I have brought a mirror,” the second one said. And sure enough, he held a mirror.
“And I have gold,” the third held up a basket full of what looked like gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins. “Because I’m the richest out of the three of us.”
They strode down the aisle, dodging the donkey who was still dancing to the tune only he could hear.
“I’m a generous king,” the one with the chocolate shouted as he reached into his basket, grabbed a handful of coins, and threw them into the pews.
And that’s when all hell broke loose—if you could say that in a church.
The kids lunged for the coins. Candles were thrust in the air to get them out of the way. Adults jumped to their feet. The sheep got scared and started to baa and stamp. A woman in the front row screeched, “Don’t eat that! That’s not chocolate, that’s sheep poo!”
All heads turned to where a mother was scooping up her toddler, who’d sneaked into the sheep pen for a snack.
“Save some of the chocolate for Jesus,” the star shouted. “And for me.”
“And Mary went into labor,” Lorraine said over the speaker, oblivious to the chaos happening in the church, because she was tucked away in the vestry.
Sure enough, wails of agony went up from the front of the church. More chocolate was thrown, and the shepherd leading the sheep let go of it to grab the coins. The sheep ran for his friends at the front of the church, knocking into the donkey. The donkey toppled into one of the rows. Candles went flying.
And the hay went up in flames.
“Fire!” shouted the star. “Fire!”
“Choccy!” shouted the toddler with his fist full of sheep poop.
People scrambled out of their pews and ran for the doors as David switched on his mic.
“Everybody, stay calm,” he ordered over the PA system.
“What’s happening?” Lorraine said over the same speakers.
The people Caroline had primed grabbed their fire extinguishers and pointed them at the fire, which was put out quickly, much to David’s relief. He watched the congregation stream out of the church. So much for his well-prepared sermon. He was about to follow everyone when the lights came back on and a voice called out, “Somebody needs to get me down from here.”
As David looked up at the star who was kicking his legs and swinging in the rafters, a heavy hand settled on his shoulder.
“Welcome to Invertary,” Josh McInnes said with a grin.