Andi opened her eyes at daybreak. The winter sun had just risen and was shining through the French doors of her balcony. How long have I been lying here? It felt like days and days. Her heart skipped a beat. Has Christmas come and gone? Did I miss it?
In the wingback chair next to the bed, her brother Mitch lay snoring, his head thrown back over the top edge. One leg hung over the chair’s arm. A blanket lay crumpled on the floor. He looked quite uncomfortable.
“Mitch?” Andi whispered. Her throat still burned like fire, but she knew without taking her temperature that her fever had broken. “Mitch!”
“Huh? What?” Mitch jerked awake and slammed his feet to the floor. Jumping up, he closed the distance between the chair and Andi’s bed. “Your fever broke.” His face split into a wide grin, and he wagged his finger at her. “You had us mighty worried, lil’ sis. You were fighting some kind of battle in your head.” He whistled. “One hundred and five. We’ve been praying day and night for your fever to break.”
Is that what being delirious meant? Fighting dream battles that seemed so real they scared her half to death? She smiled wanly. “Am I cured?”
Mother answered that question from behind Mitch. “Absolutely not!” She glided across the room. “But thank God the worst is over.” She kissed Andi’s cheek. “You’ve been a very sick little girl the past three days, and will be for at least another week—maybe two.”
Only three days! I haven’t missed the Christmas pageant! Andi threw back her covers and sat up. “I’ve got to go to school this morning,” she croaked. “If I don’t, Miss Hall will choose somebody else to be Mary.” She swallowed past the burning lump in her throat, stood up . . .
. . . and fell like a stone. Mother and Mitch caught her halfway to the floor. “The infection is sapping your strength, sweetheart,” Mother said, gently guiding her back into bed. She propped Andi’s head against two fluffy pillows and gave her a firm look.
“I may allow you up long enough to use the chamber pot, but you will be staying in bed until this”—she slid Andi’s nightgown sleeve past her elbow—“is completely gone.”
Andi stared at the fine, red rash. Her head still spun from her attempt to get out of bed. “Will I be well enough by Christmas Eve to attend the pageant?”
Mother and Mitch exchanged troubled glances.
“No, Andrea,” Mother said. “It’s next Wednesday, only six days from now.” She shook her head when Andi opened her mouth to protest. “Your sore throat will disappear in a day or two, and the rash will be gone by Christmas, but you will still be too weak to go anywhere.”
“Please?” Andi whispered. Unwanted tears filled her eyes. She couldn’t miss the pageant!
“I’ll tie her down if you need me to, Mother,” Mitch said, losing his smile. He regarded Andi with the same look Mother had given her a minute ago. “We’ve seen for ourselves what happens when someone gets up too soon after being ill.”
Mother sat down on the bed and stroked Andi’s hair. “It happened to one of our ranch hands. He went back to work too soon and then relapsed—got sicker—and that time he did not recover.”
Andi’s mouth dropped open.
“A Christmas pageant is not worth losing you, sweetheart,” Mother said softly. “You will stay in bed for at least another few days. Then we’ll see about letting you up to join the family for Christmas Day.”
“Yes, Mother,” Andi whispered. She suddenly felt very tired. Just talking with her family had drained her. She slumped against the pillow and closed her eyes. “I’m sleepy.”
A few minutes later, she opened her eyes. Mitch and Mother had left the room. Andi rolled over and let her unshed tears trickle down her cheeks. There would be no Christmas pageant for her this year, and maybe no Christmas, either.
Four days later, about three o’clock in the afternoon, Andi woke from a nap to find Justin sitting in the chair by her bedside. When he caught her gaze, he smiled. “You look better and better every day.” He held out a plate of sugar cookies surrounding a tall mug of steaming chocolate. “Luisa and Nila fixed you a Christmas treat. Since I wanted to talk to you, I offered to bring it upstairs.”
Andi flung aside the book she’d been reading when she fell asleep earlier and scooted back against the headboard. For the first time in the week since she’d fallen ill, she felt hungry. She eagerly accepted the plate on her lap and bit into the crisp, sugary treat. Her mouth exploded in delight. When she swallowed the hot chocolate, her throat no longer burned. “Mmmm.” She sighed. “Tell Luisa thank you.”
“I will,” Justin promised. He helped himself to a cookie and leaned back in the chair. “I have some school news I thought you’d like to hear,” he said, taking a bite.
Andi stopped chewing. There were only two more days until the pageant. Her throat tightened. Don’t think about it! “I’d rather not hear the news that Priscilla Johnson took my part as Mary.”
Justin chuckled. “I wouldn’t ruin your Christmas by telling you that, honey. On the contrary, the board closed school the end of last week. With half a dozen new cases of scarlet fever, Dr. Weaver ordered a quarantine. Classes won’t resume until after the holidays.”
“Wh-what about the pageant?” Andi stammered.
“I’m afraid this year’s Christmas pageant has been interrupted by sickness beyond our control.”
Andi lost her appetite, even for sugary treats. She no longer just felt saddened that she couldn’t be Mary in the pageant. Now, none of the townsfolk would enjoy the schoolchildren’s retelling of the Christmas story. “This is terrible news,” she said, sniffing back tears. “Our town’s Christmas is ruined.”
Justin lifted another cookie from the plate and frowned at Andi’s barely touched chocolate. “Drink it before it gets cold,” he advised. Then he grinned. “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about Christmas being ruined. Rumor has it that the Fresno grammar school’s yearly Christmas pageant may have been disrupted but not canceled altogether.”
“How’s that?” Andi asked, confused.
“As long as no new cases of scarlet fever rear their ugly heads, Miss Hall intends to present the pageant on New Year’s Eve this year. By then, you’ll be well enough to take up your role as Mary and—”
“Really?” Andi clasped her hands and stifled a squeal. Mother would scold if Andi hollered and started bouncing on her bed. She glanced around the room. “Where’s my Bible? I need to relearn my lines!”
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” It was incredibly easy for Andi to put feeling into her words tonight. By the time she reached “for He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His name,” Andi’s whole heart was praising God. He had done mighty things for her. Wasn’t standing in front of half the town of Fresno as Mary evidence of God’s goodness?
No new cases of scarlet fever had broken out, and the celebration-hungry townsfolk packed into the community hall in droves. The angels sang sweetly and only muffed their lines once; Johnny Wilson told the Wise Men to find the baby king and report back; and only one shepherd boy tripped when the ragged group bowed before the infant in Mary’s arms.
Andi didn’t have to work very hard to look “blessed and serene” during the final manger scene. She felt peaked and utterly worn out from the evening’s excitement. She clutched baby Richard and hoped she didn’t keel over with him into the feedbox, courtesy of Goodwin’s Mercantile. When she swayed, Cory wrapped an arm around her; the crowd murmured their approval of Joseph’s care for Mary.
Andi prayed that the last song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” would end soon. A bleating from one of the lambs on loan from a local sheepherder rose above the chorus. A second lamb joined its brother. The yearling calf suddenly lowed and stretched its neck against the rope securing it to the backdrop. The scenery wobbled.
Andi hugged the baby closer. She hoped the background stayed put. The choir of angels and shepherds finished their song and dispersed. Reverend Harris offered up a short prayer and dismissed the crowd. He clearly did not want to keep praying until the calf brought down the house.
The applause thundered, waking the baby, who howled his unhappiness. Mrs. Samuelson rescued her son and moved off. Andi slumped gratefully against a hay bale and closed her eyes. There was food and drink and conversation in the large hall—enough to bring in the New Year. In addition, a New Year’s ball would soon be in full swing at the hotel down the street.
Not for me. Andi dozed. Chad’s hand shaking her shoulder woke her up with a start. “You did good, little sister. A more blessed and serene Mary I’ve never seen.” He chuckled. “And I know the reason.”
So do I, Andi thought drowsily.
Chad hauled her to her feet then swung her up in his arms. “You’re done in. Let’s go home.”
Andi nodded. She was too tired to reply. But she was not too tired to smile to herself. It had been a close call, but Christmas had not been canceled, after all.