“Five days and it’s Christmas!” Ema squealed as she danced around me the next time I entered the café.
Behind the counter, Emily waved at me. She was on the phone.
“Shh,” I told Ema. “Your mom is on the phone.”
“What are you doing for Christmas?” Ema whispered.
“Probably sleeping a lot, and calling my parents.”
“Will you come see us?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to interrupt your day with your mom.”
“But I want you, and Clara, and Mr. Jerome to come!” Ema said.
“That’s up to-” I began, but Ema interrupted.
“Are you going to kiss Clara?”
I looked at Ema and blinked. “What?”
“You like her. My friend Sarah said that’s what people do when they like each other.”
“I’m not kissing her for a long time, if ever.” I said. “Just because some people do it doesn’t mean it’s what I want to do. Kisses are special, for special times, unless you’re married.”
“Oh. Did mama kiss my papa?”
“Yes, she did.”
“Do you want to kiss Clara?”
“Ema! I’m not answering that.”
Emily put the phone down. “Hi, Walter.”
“Mama, can Walter, Clara, and Mr. Jerome come on Christmas?” Ema asked.
“Jerome said he should be out of the hospital by then,” I said. “I stopped by to see him earlier today.”
“That was him on the phone,” Emily said. “I had to get questions answered about finances. And I needed reassurance. I really doubt we’ll be able to stay open.”
“The concert will help, I promise,” I said.
“I called Kate before I called Jerome.” She sighed. “It’s so quiet around here that I have time to make long phone calls. Anyway, I’d been meaning to do that for a long time.”
“How is she?”
“It’s hard to tell,” Emily said, shaking her head. “There’s a lot I don’t think she’s willing to admit to herself. She thinks she’s fine, but the way she says it, I doubt it.”
“Has she seen Jake at all?”
“I asked if she’d do some paintings for the café. I told her I can’t buy them but we can display them with prices and people can buy them at the soiree.”
My phone rang. It was Clara.
“Hi, Walter. Are you free if I come by the café today? I’ll be really busy until a day or two before the concert so I thought we should get one more practice in.”
“Yes, today works great! I’ll be here so just come by any time.”
“Okay. See you soon, then!”
“Clara’s coming today,” I said.
“Yay!” Ema cried.
“How did Jerome sound when you talked to him on the phone today?”
“He sounded weak, but otherwise normal. I think he’s worried about all of us, though. Our struggles weigh heavily on him.”
“I feel bad for always unloading on him,” I said. “But he has answers.”
“though sometimes his answers bring more questions,” Emily said.
“Yes. Yesterday we were talking about what I read in the Bible he gave me. It said that those disobedient to parents deserved death and I thought that seemed harsh – what kind of God does that?” I stopped, remembering the past few weeks. “Emily, that thought process has nothing to do with you, I promise! Just me, and people in general.”
“But I’m included in that ‘general.’” Her voice was low and quiet.
“That’s not why I’m telling you this. I’m confused. I don’t know what I think about God or the Bible and I’m trying to figure it out. Jerome is helping, but like you said, he just adds more questions.”
Emily was quiet.
“I don’t know how to process it or what to do about it,” I said. “I think I may have been more sensitive to what I read because of you, but it challenged me about me, and is bothering me because of me. I’m not sure I can believe a God that condemns people to death for disobeying parents, but if I can, then I’m in big trouble.”
“I don’t think God would have been happy if I did what they said about Ema,” Emily whispered and turned to pull some muffins out of the oven.
“Jerome would know what to say to that. But maybe some of God’s laws are greater than others, because you were definitely right.”
Emily was silent, and Ema was tugging my hand, begging me to come make paper snowflakes with her. I folded and cut, but my mind was far from Ema’s chatter. How could Emily have followed God in both areas? And how could she go back to her parents without making it seem like they had been right?
Clara’s arrival interrupted my thoughts. Emily brought us hot chocolate while we set up. It was times like these that I was glad the café was quiet and empty – but I knew we needed it busy, and full on the night of the soiree.
“I saw flyers around town on my way over,” Clara said.
“I’m glad the weather hasn’t destroyed them,” I said. “I still need to put more up.”
“How many people are you expecting?”
“The café was packed, standing room only, last time. With the holidays I expect there will be less, but we’ve advertised more, so I don’t know,” Emily said.
“I think my parents are coming to the concert,” I said. “I called yesterday because I was thinking about going home for Christmas. They’re traveling now but said they may come.”
“My parents and sister are coming for sure,” Clara said.
“Then we’ll have at least a small audience. Shall we?” I asked, flipping up the lid on the piano.
We practiced, but all we really needed for most of the pieces was a run-through.
“I think we’ll be ready with a practice a day or two before,” I said. “Ema, are you ready to do your solo again?”
Ema came bounding over. “I’m always ready!”
After we played my arrangement of Silent Night once, Clara worked with Ema on her part a little more. I fiddled around on the piano, hashing out a few parts I wasn’t happy with. Over the noise of my own thoughts and the music, I heard them talking.
“Do you like Walter?” Ema asked Clara.
“He’s my friend,” Clara said.
“He likes you a lot,” Ema said.
I swallowed and felt the blood rush to my face. I hoped that this wasn’t the end of everything.
“Let’s try this again,” Clara said, pointing to Ema’s music.
“He does,” Ema replied, but sang her part again.
“Just let me know when you want to practice again before the concert,” I said as Clara left.
She nodded. “I’ll give you a call.” She turned to go.
“I- I’m sorry for what Ema said. She talks too much.”
“I enjoy our friendship,” Clara said, “but don’t know if either of us are ready for more right now.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Tell me bluntly.”
“How things are with Emily,” she said. “Relationships are messy, Walter, and we have to be ready and able to clean up those messes.”
“Thank you for telling me,” I said. “I want to see things through with Emily. I’m just not sure what to do quite yet.”
“I have to go,” Clara said. “I’ll see you after Christmas.”