Caelius lifted his head, mouth agape and eyes as wide as saucers. His exhausted expression transformed into the widest of smiles, and he jumped at Father Marques' knees, clinging to him with all of his might. He hiccuped softly as if he might cry.
"You mean, I get to live with you in the church? Forever?"
"Forever and ever!" The Father chanted, spinning him around in his arms.
Caelius was finally his, free from this prison of an institution, and neither of them would look back. Laughing with him, holding him – The Father was at such peace. His sanctuary was in Caelius' arms, and his was in Father Marques'. For that brief moment, he did not fret over his old age, small salary, and full schedule. He had so little to offer Caelius, but he felt assured that all would work out as long as he loved him. And love was all that he could feel towards this remarkable boy.
The hum of the engine beneath their feet filled the back seat of the cab, lulling Caelius to sleep. Night fell shortly after departing from St. Anthony's, and Father Marques could see that Caelius was drained from the day's events. As he nodded off beside the old man, he smiled to myself and pulled his child onto my lap. Cradling him in his arms, he ran his hand through his curly hair and gave a pleased sigh – Perhaps he could finally enjoy this Christmas season now that Caelius had his wish.
"We're here," the driver whispered to Father Marques as he peered through the rear view mirror. Caelius immediately perked up from his spot, pressing his face close to the glass, and he scrambled out of his seat the moment I unlatched the door, eyes wide with wonder. It was the first time he had seen the church without a mask of white, and every stone was illuminated under the full moon.
"It's even more beautiful than before!"
"Come, child," Father Marques chuckled with a pat on his back. "There will be plenty of time for admiration later, but right now, I need to take care of those hands, Then off to bed it is."
He nodded sadly as the Father retrieved his bags from the driver and lead him inside. After pulling a roll of bandages and a tube of ointment from the medicine cabinet, he sat Caelius down in the spare room to wrap his blistered hands. Since the boy had been living exclusively with women for the past couple of months, the Father worried that he might show some reservation towards the old man, but Caelius still enjoyed being fussed. He urged Father Marques to wash him, dress him, tuck him in – just as he had before. And it was in those little rituals that the prospect of having his own son was finally beginning to feel real to him.
Father Marques brought Caelius to bed just a short while later, and gave a exasperated gasp as he noticed the time on the wall-clock.
"8 pm already! Good grief, there is still so much I have to prepare for tonight," the Father mumbled as he hurried Caelius under the covers.
"What is tonight?" The boy asked with excited eyes, refusing to lie down.
"The Midnight Mass. It is tradition to hold a vigil, on Christmas Eve. But you must go to bed, you look so tired."
"Do I have to? I can help!" he beamed, scooting closer to the man. "How could I possibly sleep now?"
Father Marques laughed at his enthusiasm and patted his tiny shoulders. "If you insist, but just for tonight. I wouldn't mind the company."
Caelius joined the Father in the chapel, gathering candles to light and garlands to string throughout the halls. Between his daily duties and Caelius' visits this season, he had little time to decorate, but the time was much better spent with his boy at his side. Tonight would be the first of a years-long tradition.
With just a few minutes left, Father Marques stepped out of his bedroom dressed in white and gold for the ceremony. He took one last look around the church to check that all of the necessary items and decorations were in place before sitting beside Caelius in the front pew. There, he admired the flickering flames as they reflected against the stained glass and vaulted ceiling – The candlelight filled the dim room with a warm, heavenly glow.
"Pretty, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes, Papa. It's the most wonderful sight."
Suddenly, the beating of the iron knocker at the front door echoed through the chapel. Father Marques hopped up from his seat and patted Caelius' head.
"Now, are you sure you'll be alright here with the others?"
He nodded. "The nuns taught me what to do."
As the Father greeted the members that flowed through the wide mahogany doors, Caelius peered over the seat at him. The man worried that the crowds might overwhelm they boy as they filled into the spaces beside him, but he seemed to enjoy the excitement thus far.
The ceremony began as soon as the clock struck 10, and voices of each member joined in a chorus of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing". Caelius watched tentatively from his seat in near awe of the procession and soothing melody. In past weeks, Father Marques would look onto the congregation with a sense of emptiness, but as he caught Caelius' encouraging gaze, all traces of it vanished. I've found purpose again.
Caelius managed to keep his fluttering eyelids open for almost an hour, but after a few verses into Luke 2, the Father glanced up to find him fast asleep against the arm rest. He grinned at the sight. It was the most enjoyable Christmas Eve I could recall in many years, and as the clock struck midnight, the members rejoiced the coming of another December the 25th with hugs and warm wishes. He, too, joined them as he stepped down from the altar to lift his sleeping child into his arms. Caelius stirred against his shoulder, and Father Marques kissed the top of his head in celebration.
The members took notice of him almost immediately, gathering on either side of them.
"Who is that little one you have with you?"
"Where did he come from?"
Members young and old, alike, bombarded Father Marques with their curiosities.
"His name is Caelius... He had no family, so we have become one. He is my son, now," he said trying to cover the tremble in my voice as he looked out to the members gathered around me, their tender gazes filled with adulation for the child. Some seemed suspicious, but most assured him that he would have a community in support of his decision.
"Aw, what a cute one, he is..."
"You'll have to formally introduce us next time."
"We look forward to seeing the lil' tyke around!"
After bidding farewell to the last of the churchgoers, Father Marques hurried to the guest room which he realized would now permanently be Caelius' bedroom. Holding his little body close, the Father pulled back the covers and laid him gently against the soft sheets. He stroked his curly blonde hair in one last time that night. The church could no longer be priority – Caelius would be his everything now.
". . . Blessed be God in His Angels and in His Saints."
Father Marques lifted his head and the congregation followed cue as he finished the service with a prayer. Christmas bells chimed through the hall, and the members rose from their seats to exit the chapel and shake his hand goodbye for the third time that day. He wiped his brow and glanced at the grandfather clock in the hall with a weak smile. For him, this holiday would often fly by, but today each sermon passed slowly as he watched Caelius in the corner of my eye, patiently waiting for some time with him. He seemed content with the company of Sister Martin and Sister Roberts, but Father Marques felt as if he was neglecting precious moments with him. Would it be this way every year? He wanted so much more for him – to give him the sort of Christmas' he'd had as a boy – even though he was so forgiving, never questioning his duties.
Hours later, after bolting the front door and bidding farewell to the last of his guests, he gave an exhausted sigh. In his old age, these busy seasons were becoming quite fatiguing, and he had to steady himself against the cool surface to keep his balance. His mind was racing, the anxiety of his busy schedule finally catching up to him.
"Papa? Are you okay?" Caelius scurried towards him and tugged on his robe with worried eyes.
Father slowly leaned forward to pat his head. "Don't you worry yourself, my boy. Dear dad is just a bit tired... But I promise it'll just be the two of us now."
"Then it is the perfect time to see your gift!"
Caelius slipped his hand into the Father's with a nod and urged him to accompany him in the dining room. The child's remark brought a smile to his lips and he did his best to follow his quick pace despite his sluggishness.
A tangy aroma of citrus and rosemary permeated the corridor, and the rich scent overwhelmed him as they ventured toward the dining hall. What could Caelius have possibly been up to all this time? As the boy pushed passed the heavy door with all of his might, Father Marques eyes widened and cheeks flushed red. The long dining table, meticulously decorated with a row of candles twigs of holly, held a banquet with a steaming roast goose as the centerpiece – Just for the two of them. Father Marques rushed to the table to pluck off the anonymous note which read, "Happy Christmas" in fine cursive.
"And I even helped Sister Martin set the table! Oh, wait, it was supposed to be ah-mom-ee-nous, they said... But do you like it, Papa?"
Father Marques pulled Caelius up and pecked him on the forehead with a hearty laugh. "You're the best boy a man could ask for, you know? We'll have to do something extra nice for the sisters before the holiday is up."
The Father sat the boy down at a chair beside him and tucked the corner of a cloth napkin into his sweater as he pulled his hair next to his own. For the first time that day, he stopped to ponder the true meaning of Christmas, and he was grateful for the Sisters' thoughtful gesture. Taking Caelius' hand in his, they said grace and praised the Lord for the blessings bestowed upon them, especially for the blessing of family.
Caelius had come at the perfect time in Father Marques' life, and by no chance. His last ten years had become increasingly unfulfilling as his sense of purpose waned. He could not have continued that way. Caelius was heaven sent, his little angel to watch over his, and it was the Father's sincere prayer that they would be together for many years to come.
The two were slow to finish their meal that chilly evening with no plans but to relish in their time together. After scraping up what crumbs were left, and sharing a serving of plum pudding, the Father encouraged Caelius to enjoy himself while he cleaned up after their feast. It warmed his heart to see Caelius dashing about the church as free as a bird, in his home where I could ensure his innocent spirit would properly flourish.
Father Marques joined him just a few moments later in front of the towering evergreen while Caelius admired the twinkling lights. He stretched his small hand toward the Father, but he swept him into his arms, making himself comfortable in the pew as his child snuggled into his chest. Rocking back and forth, they sat in silence and looked onto the decorated chapel. What a luxury it was to have found this peace at last.
"Papa, did you have a good Christmas?"
"With you, how could I not? Twas the best one yet."
Caelius smiled and situated himself in the Father's arms again, seemingly pleased with his answer.
"And what about you, little one? I have no gifts to offer you, and we've had so little time together..."
"But I have all I could ever dream of! I live in a beautiful home with you, Papa. All of the boys at St. Mary's used to tell me how lucky I was to have someone who loved me. I feel sorry for them sometimes... but I'm so happy to be here." He finished by turning his palms towards the man. "And see, my hands are all better! It must be one of those Christmas miracles I heard about."
Father Marques bit his lip, suddenly aware of how forgetful he'd been. How could such a traumatizing occurrence slip his mind so easily? Furrowing his brows, the Father held the boy's hands open to take a better look – He was right. Where there were red and purple blotches last night, there was now smooth, peachy skin.
"A Christmas miracle, indeed..." He trailed off, bewildered as to how he could have healed so quickly.
Perhaps he'd underestimated the resilience of his youth, or maybe the injuries weren't as bad as he'd previously imagined.
"And there's one more thing I want to tell you, Papa." He clamped his hand around the man's, and the Father put his mind off of the bruises for a moment.
"Yes, Caelius?" His heart stirred at the sound of his new title.
The boy pulled himself up to hug the old man, and buried his face in his shirt. "Thank you for keeping me. I... I love you."
The stirring in his heart transformed into an overwhelming tightening that suddenly brought a tear to the Father's eye. Caelius' quiet confession was so precious to him, more than any memory he could recall. He suppressed the urge to make any noise, but Caelius could feel the shake of his shoulders as Father Marques squeezed him tight.
"What's wrong...?" Caelius asked, his voice tainted with concern.
"Nothing, my dear boy... You're simply the best gift I could ever ask for," He replied, weakly, while wiping his eyes. "I love you, too, so much."
Caelius' eyes were the loveliest shade of silver as he stared back at the Father, no longer a dismal, stony grey. It was the most satisfying confirmation that he had, indeed, done what was best for the both of them.
"Happy Christmas, Papa," he whispered, warmly.
"Happy Christmas, my son."