nd there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. . . .
Burke couldn't remember the rest. It was something about peace and singing. That much he knew. But the exact words escaped him. He closed his eyes and pictured himself standing at the front of the church, just as Mrs. Throckton had told him to do. He was wearing a long brown robe and holding a staff made from a mop handle. Two other shepherds stood near him, while a couple of little kids dressed as sheep wandered around looking lost.
The problem was his beard. Made of cotton balls glued to construction paper and attached to his face with pieces of string that hooked around his ears, it made it difficult for him to speak. He felt himself growing anxious as he cleared his throat and tried again. But the words seemed to be stuck. He couldn't get them to come out of his mouth. All he could do was look out at the pews filled with people waiting for him to deliver his speechâthe most important part of the whole pageant.
He opened his eyes. His heart was beating fast in his chest, and for a moment he couldn't breathe. Then he looked around, saw that he was standing on top of the hill, and he began to calm down.
he reassured himself.
He moved his feet, his boots crunching in the snow. It had gotten colder since he'd come out an hour ago. He looked up at the sky and saw that it was darkening. Night was coming. Soon he would have dinner with his parents, and then his father would drive them to church, where Burke would play his part in the Nativity pageant. If he could say his lines.
He tried not to think about it, concentrating instead on the hill, and specifically on the path he'd made for the toboggan. It was a good path. He'd planned it carefully, first tamping the snow down with his feet and then dragging the toboggan up and down the hill several times, until the path was exactly wide enough and deep enough to keep the sled on track. It had been a lot of work, and he was tired. But the anticipation of a spectacular ride energized him. As he looked down the hill, he could already feel the shaking of the toboggan as it slid over the hard-packed snow.
The best part, of course, was the jump. Admittedly, it wasn't exactly a jump, more of a very large bump. But it would do the trick. He'd chosen the route precisely because it took him over a mound that stuck out of the hill about halfway down. If he could get up enough speed, the toboggan would hit the bump and lift up enough to create the sensation of flying. This was assuming that he'd planned correctly. Toboggans were tricky things and didn't always do what one wanted them to.
He'd waxed the bottom of his, rubbing the paraffin into the wood until the boards were shiny and slick. So far it had performed admirably, sliding over the snow with a satisfying shushing sound. True, it had once or twice attempted to go sideways or break free from the path, but that was the nature of toboggans, and Burke admired its refusal to be entirely tamed.
It had begun to snow again. Thick flakes tumbled from the sky. Although he loved snow, he wished it would stop, at least until he was finished. New snow filled in the path and slowed the toboggan's pace. A clean, almost icy surface was preferable. Still, he had time before the new snow accumulated enough to affect things too badly.
he told himself.
This is what you've been waiting for.
Still he held back, scanning the track for any imperfections, moving the toboggan back and forth across the snow to make sure its underside was still slippery. He knew that he was hesitating because now that the long-awaited moment had arrived, he was afraid of failure. His mind flashed suddenly to the image of himself standing onstage, unable to remember the words of the angel of the Lord.
He pulled the toboggan to the crest of the hill and the start of the track. Positioning it so that the front extended just over the hill's peak, he sat down and took hold of the guide rope. Tucking his feet into the hollow made by the upward curve of the wood, he used his hands to push the toboggan forward until he felt the front tip. Then, giving one final push, he leaned forward and let the weight of his body propel the toboggan into the fall.
Cold air buffeted his face, making his eyes tear up. He blinked, clearing them, and looked straight ahead. The toboggan was gathering speed, and the snow whispered excitedly as Burke sailed over it. Everything was working perfectly.
It's going to fly,
he told himself.
The mound was coming up. Only a few more yards. He pushed against the wind, trying to use as much of his weight as he could to help the toboggan accelerate.
You can do it.
The front of the toboggan began to rise. Burke held his breath, praying that it wouldn't bog down in the snow. It didn't, and a moment later he was lifted into the air. He seemed to rise above the toboggan. Below him the snow spread out like a frozen sea, and he appeared to be flying over the tops of the pine trees that lined the edge of the field. Exultant, he threw his arms out wide and shouted with joy.
This spontaneous expression of happiness was his undoing. The toboggan, its balance upset, veered from its intended trajectory and lurched to the left as it descended. The prow struck the edge of the track at an angle, and the toboggan tipped sideways. Burke, clutching the guide rope, managed to remain seated, but the toboggan itself spun so that it was now moving backward down the hill. It was also picking up speed.
Disoriented and unable to control the toboggan, Burke could only hold on and wait for the ride to end. He had no idea where the toboggan was going, but eventually it had to stop. If he could just hang on, he would be fine.
And then there came another lurch. The toboggan, catching in a bit of frozen snow, upended. Burke once again rose into the air, but this time he could not hang on. His body was thrown from the sled. He somehow turned so that he was facing the sky, and for a moment he thought everything would be fine. Then he struck something with great force, and all went black.
When he next opened his eyes, it was dark and he was cold. Snow was falling on his face, and he lifted his hand to wipe it away. The fingers of his gloves were stiff and scratched his skin. When he breathed, a sharp pain exploded in his chest. He couldn't feel his legs.
He was lying beside a tree, but he couldn't recall how he had gotten there. His mind filled with jumbled imagesâsnow, flying, a toboggan. It all began to come together. Then, all of a sudden, a blinding light filled the sky above him. He shielded his eyes with his hand. The light burned like fire and turned the world gold. Then a voice came from within it.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
The voice ceased, and Burke heard himself speak. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
The air was filled with an unearthly soundâhigh-pitched cries that hurt his ears and shattered the tranquility. The light around him changed, becoming colder. He was racked with pain and heard himself cry out for help.
“Mr. Crenshaw,” a voice said. “Mr. Crenshaw, can you hear me?”
He tried to answer, but his throat was filled with something.
he thought vaguely. He was choking on snow. He coughed, trying to clear it.
“Just lie still, Mr. Crenshaw,” the voice ordered. “You're going to be fine.”
The light lessened, and he looked up into the face of a stranger. From somewhere to the side of him came flashes of red, like fireworks. The strange wailing sounds continued to fill his ears.
“I have to get to church,” he told the man who was looking down at him. “I have to be in the pageant. I remember my lines now.” He tried to sit up and found that he couldn't.
“Lie still,” the man said again. “We're going to get you out of here.”
“The toboggan,” Burke said. “The snow. There's no snow now. Where did it go?”
A second faceâa woman'sâcame into view above him. “How's he doing?” she said.
“He's pretty banged up,” the man answered. “But he's alive.”
“He's lucky,” said the woman. “The way that car looks, he shouldn't be here.”
Burke wondered who they were talking about. He started to ask, but then the light came again. This time it refused to be blotted out by the closing of his eyes. It filled his head, exploding as a chorus of voices rang out.
And once more the world went black.