It was November, rainy and cold, with naked trees shivering. The year had been the worst of Stephanie’s life. Six thirty. She burrowed deep into the covers. If she didn’t get up soon, she’d be late for work. She groaned.
“Meow,” said Shakespeare the cat. She felt his little body jump onto the bed. She poked her head out from beneath the tangled covers.
“What?” She snapped. “Okay, okay. I’m getting up.”
The bathroom mirror revealed a young woman who looked shockingly much like something out of a horror movie at present. Her dark curls had frizzed and were sticking out in every direction. She’d been too tired to shower and change the night before, and her clothes were wrinkled and anything but fresh. Well, it was too late to try to shower now. She tried to brush her hair, but the frizzing just got worse. Defeated, she pulled it all into a messy bun, emphasis on the word messy. Shakespeare sat on the bathroom sink and watched. His eyes seemed disapproving this morning.
“I’m sorry, okay?” She said to the cat. “I’m exhausted. I’ll shower tonight when I get home.” Shakespeare meowed and began washing his face. “Hey. Don’t pretend like you have it all together. That’s not helpful at the moment.”
She wasn’t going to have time to make herself breakfast. So instead, she fed the cat and kissed the top of his furry head. “I’ll try to be home at a reasonable time tonight, buddy.” Then, she wrapped her scarf around her neck and grabbed her gloves. She’d stop for coffee on the way to work.
It was a five minute walk from her apartment to the clothing boutique where she currently worked. The neighborhood cafe was one block away from her apartment. Convenient location. Or not. She mumbled to herself, something about not even wanting to know how much money she spent on coffee.
Cafe mocha in hand, she unlocked the back door at work. She breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she’d actually gotten there before her boss this morning. That would be different for a change. But no, Heather was already in her office.
Stephanie hung up her coat in the break room and headed to the front to take care of the morning tasks before the boutique opened. Heather stepped outside her office to say good morning.
“Steph,” she exclaimed, “no offense, but you look like something the cat dragged in!”
“Thanks,” said Stephanie.
“Everything okay?” Asked Heather. She sounded concerned.
Stephanie could feel the tears coming. She tried to stop them, but it was too late for that. Heather gave her a hug.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you’ve had a rough time, and with the holidays coming up, I’m sure it has to be difficult. Do you need the day off?”
Steph sniffled and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “It doesn’t do any good for me to be home alone,” she said. “Then I think, and it makes everything worse.”
“But you look exhausted,” Heather said. “Are you sure it wouldn’t be better for you to go home and take a nap? You can come back this afternoon if you feel up to it. Go. I’ve got things under control. It’s a Tuesday, and it’ll be slow. My office work can wait.”
Stephanie decided it was pointless to argue. She really didn’t look great, and the thought of facing customers all day was overwhelming. And she really did need a nap. She couldn’t remember the last time she had actually slept well. Not since March. Of course, her world hadn’t fallen apart all at once. It had been happening slowly for years. March was simply the climax. The beginning of the obvious dysfunction.
Her parents announced their intention to divorce, after being married for nearly thirty years. Steph heard both sides of the story, but after continued conversations, with each parent tearing down the other one, Steph bowed out of their lives. She couldn’t side with one or the other. They were both acting childish. Although she hadn’t lived with them for nearly five years, this breaking up of their small family unit cut her to the core. In May, a month after the finalization of the divorce, Steph heard from extended family members that both her parents were seeing other people, and her strong sense of right and wrong was deeply injured. She tried confronting her parents about their choices, but they refused to listen, all the while trying to justify themselves. It was useless, and Steph let them know she loved them, but she could not and would not approve of their lifestyles. So, in two short months, the breaking of their family was complete. Stephanie was shattered.
In July, the guy she had been dating broke up with her for no apparent reason, until she found out weeks after the breakup, that he was dating another girl. Her trust evaporated. And her mental health spiraled into a deep depression. Three of her core relationships had ended, all in four short months. She cried out to God, but there was only silence.
In September, Stephanie decided it was time for a change, and she moved to the city, leaving the small town where she had lived all her life. It felt like a fresh start, but it was overwhelming in her current state, finding a new job, a new church, a new apartment, and forming new relationships. Thank God for Shakespeare. At least he was something familiar in a place totally unfamiliar.
Back at the apartment, Stephanie let water run into the tub. A shower was too much work, but perhaps a bath would help her relax. Shakespeare was a little confused when the opening of the apartment door disturbed him from his morning nap, but he was happy to see her nonetheless. If only people were more like cats, she thought as she sank into the warm water. Cats were so easy to get along with, so chill.
The bath and the nap did wonders, as did some actual food. Heather texted her to tell her that business was really slow, and to go ahead and take the whole day off. Unsure what to do with herself all day, she decided to take a walk, and ended up at the church she had been attending since her move to the city.
It was most likely locked, she told herself, but she tried the door anyway. The wind was brisk, and it would feel good to sit down for a little. Maybe she’d even talk to God. It was worth a try. Christmas was coming, and didn’t people say that Christmas was the season for miracles? She doubted that there were more miracles at Christmas than the rest of the year; Christmas probably just made people more aware of them. At any rate, she could use a miracle. Or two or three, for that matter.
The door opened. Stephanie wandered into the sanctuary and sat in the silence. Silence. Why was God so silent? Silent through her childhood, silent through the recent upheaval of her life, just silent. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in God. She did. But when she spoke to him, why did He choose not to answer? During her parents’ divorce, she had prayed fervently, and God seemingly did nothing.
She bowed her head to pray, but no words came to her mind. Where did one even start? She saw a church bulletin from the previous Sunday lying on the bench beside her. The verse on the front was Psalm 37:4. “Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (NKJV) It was a verse that failed to resonate. If God actually had her best interests at heart, why was her life such a complete mess?
She heard footsteps enter the sanctuary and looked up. It was Kyle, the youth pastor. He saw her and walked in her direction.
“Can I help you?” He asked. “It’s Stephanie, right?”
She rose to shake his hand. “Yes, it’s Stephanie. I was just out for a walk and ended up here.”
He smiled. “The house of the Lord is always a good place to end up. I came to work on the Advent activities for the youth group. But it can wait. I’ve been wanting to speak with you, to see if you need anything or how the church can be a blessing for you. You’re new to the area, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “I’ve been here for two months.”
“Not to pry,” he said, “but I’ve noticed you seem troubled when you come to church. And sad. Are you okay?”
She hesitated. Nobody knew her story in the city yet except Heather. And that was only because Steph worked for her. Kyle noticed the hesitation.
“If you’d rather not talk about it, I understand,” he said. “But I know from personal experience that sometimes processing things out loud can be helpful. And my job description is to listen.”
Stephanie relented, and they sat down on the bench. If she didn’t get it all out soon, it was going to eat her up inside. She began to talk. It all came out- the divorce, the breakup, the betrayals, the depression and hopelessness, the silence of God through it all. And Kyle listened. And handed her a tissue box.
When she had finished, she sat silent, tearing her tissue into miniscule pieces. “I’m sorry,” Kyle said. “I’m really sorry you’ve had to walk this road. It absolutely sucks.”
“What do I do?” She asked.
He reached out and touched her hand. “Let God love you.”
He handed her another tissue. “You let God love you. Your trust in people has been shattered into a million pieces, and it sounds like your trust in God’s goodness has also been shaken. Let Him love you and show you that He can be trusted.”
“Stop trying so hard. Just be who you are, and let God tell you who you are to Him. You’re allowed to rest. You’re allowed to grieve. You’re even allowed to cry. This conversation was a beginning, and I’m proud of you for opening up.”
“Thank you for listening,” she said as she rose to go. “I should probably head home before it gets dark.”
He smiled. “Too late. It is dark.”
“What? How long have I been here?”
“Only about three hours. Don’t worry; I’ll drive you home. But if you don’t have supper plans, I’ll take you over to my parents’ house first. They’re used to me bringing people over, and Mom always makes extra food. She’s a sweetheart, my mom is, and I’d love for you to meet her.”
Stephanie gave in. She was starved for some real family time, and it wasn’t every day that she ate a good supper. In fact, the amount of fast food she had consumed in the past few months was shocking even to herself.
Kyle’s parents were wonderful, as was his sister, who seemed about Stephanie’s age. The chicken pot pie was beyond decadent, and the house had a cozy feel. The tree was already up and decorated, even though it was only the week before Thanksgiving. After dinner, when they were seated in the living room, Mrs. Wilson brought out pieces of pumpkin cake and Ashley jumped up to make some coffee.
“This is so cozy,” Steph said in an aside to Kyle, who had seated himself on the sofa next to her.
He smiled. “It is.”
Ashley overheard the snippet of conversation as she carried two coffee cups over to the sofa. “Do you decorate for Christmas?”
“Usually,” Steph answered. “Although I haven’t done anything yet this year. I thought maybe I’d skip it, but this atmosphere makes me want to decorate after all.”
“I’d love to come help you,” Ashley said, then she laughed. “You must excuse me. I have a habit of inviting myself to other people’s houses. I’m sorry.”
“I’d actually like some help,” Steph said gratefully. “I’m alone for Christmas this year and I need to find some new traditions. The old ones won’t work anymore.”
“Well, I am the mastermind of Christmas traditions,” Ashley said. “Name a day and Kyle and I will be there. Ooops. I mean Kyle will come along if you’re okay with that.”
“Of course,” Steph answered. “I’m afraid we’ll have to start from scratch though. I gave my old Christmas decorations to my roommate back home, rather than dragging them along when I moved.”
Ashley giggled with delight. “That’s all the better! I never get to start from scratch around here, because Mom has kept every Christmas decoration since Kyle and I were babies.”
“Does Saturday work?” Asked Steph. Kyle and Ashley nodded.
“We’ll be there,” Kyle said. “I’ll bring the truck, cause knowing Ashley, we’re going to need it.”
Saturday morning, Stephanie was up bright and early. Shakespeare was confused. “I’m getting ready for Christmas today, buddy,” she explained. “And I’m not even going to do it by myself. No offense to you, but you are just a cat, and sometimes I need humans as well.”
Shakespeare purred and rubbed up against her leg. “Pretty sure you would hold off on the purring if you actually knew what I said,” she told him, reaching down to pet his fuzzy head. He purred louder. “Yeah. Well, you just go ahead and interpret that however you like. Now, what shall I wear?”
For the first time in months, Stephanie actually felt like making an effort on her appearance. She worked at a clothing boutique, so she usually had no option to appear frumpy, but her heart hadn’t been in it. Now, she suddenly cared. Was it Kyle? She pushed the thought down into her toes and turned to Shakespeare. “He’s just being nice,” she told the cat. “It was Ashley who volunteered him to come along today.”
“You are most unhelpful,” she said. “Go eat your breakfast while I get changed.”
The doorbell rang at precisely eight o’clock. Stephanie welcomed the brother and sister team inside. Shakespeare jumped on top of the fridge.
“It’s okay, buddy,” she told the cat. “You can come say hello.” Shakespeare didn’t move.
Kyle laughed. “I take it he’s not used to visitors?”
“Nope. You two are the first people I’ve had here since I moved. He’s not a social cat, but he might warm up later on.”
Ashley was gazing around the apartment in delight. “This is so cute,” She said. “With a little help, we can have this place looking as magical as it deserves to. Now, first things first. We’re going to find a tree!”
“Not so fast,” Kyle replied. “Coffee first. There’s a little cafe that I’m pretty sure Stephanie hasn’t discovered yet. We’ll stop there first.”
The three piled into the truck, and for the first time since the move, Steph felt a little rush of excitement and adventure. When was the last time she had done something fun? Kyle and Ashley chatted about insignificant nothings as they drove, and it put Stephanie at ease. They weren’t excluding her from the conversation, but neither were they forcing her to talk. When they pulled up in front of the cafe, Steph literally let out a little squeal of delight.
It was a tiny building sandwiched between two large office buildings, and it looked very out of place. Nanette’s, it was called, according to the sign that hung over the door, and it looked precisely like a gingerbread house. Lights were dangling from the roof and framing the windows and the door.
Kyle smiled at her reaction. “Wait til you see the inside,” he said, helping her out of the truck. He took her arm to walk inside, and Stephanie blushed. It was such an old-fashioned gesture, and it warmed her heart. Ashley ran in front of them to open the door. She bowed.
“Announcing the Duke and Duchess,” she giggled as they walked through the door.
“She’s incorrigible,” Kyle whispered to Steph.
“Thank you, brother dear,” Ashley replied. “I heard that.” Stephanie laughed. They were so incredibly refreshing.
The inside of the shop did not disappoint. The tables were made of tree stumps and the wooden chairs were painted a bright green. It reminded Steph of a storybook. Christmas trees literally lined every wall, with only space between for the windows. Gingerbread men, popcorn strings, and real orange slices adorned the branches. She had never seen anything like it.
The variety of coffees was overwhelming, although Steph was so busy admiring the place, she had only just glanced at the menu. “Do you have a preference?” Kyle asked. “Because if you don’t, I have the perfect recommendation.”
Kyle ordered peppermint mochas for them all, along with a plate of gingerbread men. They sat down at one of the stump tables, and Ashley pulled out a camera. “Here’s to the first of Steph’s new Christmas traditions,” she said, snapping a picture of Kyle and Stephanie.
When their drinks were brought out, Steph squealed again. Each mug had a mountain of whipped topping and a real peppermint stick in it. But the crowning touch was the gingerbread man that was drawn on the whipped topping with chocolate syrup. It was perfect, and surrounded by twinkling Christmas trees, holding a warm drink, in the best of company, Stephanie felt God’s whisper, “I love you, Steph.”
The next stop was the mall. Ashley had wanted to get a real tree, but Kyle and Stephanie convinced her that it was too early in the season for that, and the tree would likely be dead by Christmas. So a fake tree it was. They debated long and hard over that tree. Steph thought something small, but Kyle insisted that he was going to buy it for her, therefore, it needed to be something substantial. Ashley thought it should be a fat, short one, but Kyle thought it should be as tall as possible. Eventually, they settled on a six foot tree, but very full, with fake snow on the branches. Stephanie told them they were being too extravagant, but they would have none of her frugal arguments.
“How do you want to decorate it?” was Ashley’s question.
“Exactly like the ones at Nanette’s,” replied Stephanie. So to the grocery store they went, picking up ingredients for gingerbread cookies, boxes of microwave popcorn, and a box of oranges. It was early afternoon by the time they got back to Stephanie’s apartment, and then the tree needed to be set up. Ashley put in a Christmas movie while Kyle microwaved the popcorn and Stephanie dug out some string. Just about the time Stephanie was considering whether she should order a pizza, Mrs. Wilson showed up at the apartment with a crock pot full of chili.
Over bowls of chili, the three decided that the rest of the decorating was going to have to wait for another day. It was getting late, and Kyle had prep work he needed to do for the service in the morning. Ashley was washing up the dishes while Steph and Kyle cleaned up the living room, when Kyle handed Stephanie a small box.
“Here’s the first ornament for your tree,” he said. It was a coffee cup, complete with gingerbread man and peppermint stick, and it said “Nanette’s” across the bottom. Happy tears filled Stephanie’s eyes as she thanked him.
“I’m beginning to think there can be redemption for this year after all,” she told him. Shakespeare sneezed from the top of the fridge.