Judas' Last Christmas Eve
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Lace"
Originally featured on 03-06-2007
As part of our series "Anniversaries"

Judas walked the streets looking for meaning. He walked past a pet store window. Above him winter morning sunlight shone threw dew covered wreaths. All around him, people shopped for their loved ones. Christmas was tomorrow.

He watched the small puppies move and roll about in their small playpen. Gnawing gently on each others’ ears and gently pawing each others’ faces, he envied them.

For a moment he thought of his of puppy, and remembered a time when his name meant something good. His puppies were all dead. His name lived.

Judas turned and became aware of the crowd of winter coats moving quickly around him. He wanted to bump shoulders. He wanted to embrace. He wanted to feel the solid bones beneath the soft cotton — underneath the lace.

He continued down the block looking straight ahead. Making eye-contact with middle-aged women wearing wool porkpie hats, old men wearing wool caps and children with their hoods drawn. Despite the crowded sidewalk, nobody touched him.

Judas turned into doorway and heard the electronic ring announcing his presence. He looked at the aisles and picked one. The first few feet were shelves of Holiday ornaments, and then came painted clay Santas. A year ago, he could’ve spent a fortune buying these things. He watched an old Jewish-looking woman with shiny silver hair looking from inside her bundles at a Christmas list scrawled on a small piece of memo paper. She looked intently at the ornaments, running through, in her mind, a catalogue of loved ones. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. It was a receipt. One Large house coffee “to go.”

“You’re about my grandson’s age,” she said.

“I’m twenty six. Is that how old he is?”

“He’s twenty three. I want to get him something.”

Judas slowly stepped forward, bridging the few feet between them. She looked at him for a long moment, taking him in. Judas was surprised when she seemed to smile at him slightly. She didn’t see what he was. Maybe, she just saw her grandson.

“This one.”

He pointed to a small statue of young boy giving a young girl a flower. The boy was coy, and the girl, beaming. Judas and the woman both looked at each other in disbelief.

“Why this one?”

Judas lost his nerve.

“I don’t know. He’s twenty-three, right?”

She nodded.

“That’s a good age,” he said.

Judas looked past the wrinkled skin into her eyes. They were soft and blue. He took a deep breath. She blinked. She continued to look back.

“So is twenty six.”

Judas looked at the floor and nodded.

The old woman said Merry Christmas and took the beaming young girl and held it in her hand.

Judas turned and walked, above him rang the bell, announcing his departure from the keepsake store. A cold gust of wind met him, stinging his cheek.

The sidewalk was still bustling. It felt more crowded than before. Judas tried to avoid touching anyone. Turning his shoulders with agility, he cut through the crowd of pedestrians. He quickly glanced at store windows, still looking.

A door opened and the warm air of bagels, eggs and bacon filled his face. Judas turned to see a middle-aged couple at the counter looking out on the street. He was very hungry.

When he reached a small alleyway, he quickly darted in and searched his pockets for his cigarettes. He found the box and opened it with one hand while searching for a lighter with the other.

As he inhaled the hot smoke, his stomach growled. Judas watched as people crossed his tightly framed view. From the shade, they all looked so bright and vibrant. They glanced but didn’t stare. A familiar face flashed by. A moment later, it returned.

“Hey! Back for the holiday, huh?”

“Hey John.”

“You’re still out west, right?”

“Yeah. Still out there.”

“How’s that going?”

Judas grimaced.

“So-so.”

“You still with that-“

Judas shook his head.

“Hey sorry to hear that, man. She seemed like a nice girl.”

“Yeah. What about you, John?”

“It’s been crazy this year. With the new baby and Mary’s mother coming-“

“John, you had a kid!? Shit, I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, in October.”

“Congratulations!” John was surprised by Judas’ hug, his arm had outstretched for a handshake. “That’s fucking great, man!”

“Yeah.” John smiled and looked Judas up and down. “It’s something, alright.”

“You really got it all together, huh?” John nodded and they shared a pause.

“Alright, well I should get back to shoppin’ Last minute, right? Merry Christ-”

“Hey let me buy you a beer sometime, ya know, to celebrate your new fatherhood.”

“I’d love to, but it’s gonna be crazy for the next couple of weeks. Have a good holiday and say Hi to your family for me.” Judas exhaled a cloud of smoke and John disappeared behind it.

Bending over, Judas twisted the butt out on the sole of his black boot. Passersby glanced but didn’t stare.

He stepped out of the alley onto the sidewalk. His hands were dug hard into the pockets of his jacket. His shoulders were shrugged tightly against his neck. He walked with his head down, avoiding people by watching their waists. He could feel the sunlight warming the top of his hat. Judas wasn’t that cold.

He walked faster now. He turned right at a corner and was away from the shops. He crossed the wet street. He was alone. Head up, hands in his pockets, he ran. He continued until he was a block away. Looking up, he saw the familiar cross. The large steps leading to the big wooden doors seemed wide and welcoming. He walked up them slowly and took his sweaty hands from his pockets. He rubbed them on his jeans and took off his hat. It been years since Judas had been here. He expected the door to be locked. When it opened easily, the warm air of incense, Missalette paper and old perfume filled his throat.

Judas stood in the atria of Our Lady of Peace. Looking down the center aisle, past rows of pews, he saw the red carpet steps and the main altar. He walked slowly towards it. The church was empty and quiet.

In his chest, he could hear his heart beating. He tried to breathe quietly. He walked slowly. His footsteps tapped softly on the hard floor—the only noise.

Judas stood for a moment at the red carpeted steps. A few feet away stood the altar where he would watch Father perform a miracle each week. At Family Mass, all the children were called from the pews to sit on the red carpet around the Father. He would tell a story from the Bible and then discuss it with the children. Judas was one of these children.

He remembered how the carpet was soft and how that made it more comfortable to sit in front of a church full of adults. He remembered how much the Father smiled and delighted in having their attention. Crowded weeks, the children all sitting Indian-style would cover almost the whole altar. But the lessons of the stories always seemed so simple. And sitting there, Judas wanted to be learning more. Now standing, he looked at bare, rough carpet without children. He wanted the chance to learn again.

He kneeled on the first step, feet off the floor. He grasped his hands together, straightened his back and put his chin to his chest. And then, Judas closed his eyes.

The first thing he saw was her face. He closed his eyes more tightly. And Judas prayed.

 

In the six months prior to entering Our Lady of Peace on Christmas Eve, Judas had prayed several times. He had prayed for her. He said the words out loud in a desperate voice. He prayed in random places. He prayed while commuting on his bicycle or sitting in his backyard — any time his pain and fear overwhelmed him.

Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay. I love her.

Judas didn’t really believe in prayer—not in the power of prayer, anyway. But, perhaps he wanted to believe again. For when Judas was eighteen, he prayed almost everyday.

 

As a senior at a Catholic high school, Judas attended Chapel everyday before lunch. He received Communion, kneeled and prayed. His lunch table friends went as well and while there was a social aspect to going to Chapel, Judas appreciated the time right after Communion when he tried to talk to God. And Judas figured that if there was a God, he appreciated it, too.

One night, he was up in his room doing homework when he heard screaming and yelling coming from the downstairs.

When he reached the kitchen, his mother was holding their new kitten and yelling at their dog. He grabbed the car keys and in ten minutes they were at the vet. On the way there, Judas prayed.

Please let her be okay. Please let her be okay.

There was nothing the Vet could do. So, wrapped up in a yellow blanket, the gray kitten went home. On the way back, Judas saw his mother cry. He had an idea.

He asked his mother if they could bury the kitten the next day. They put the kitten, still wrapped in its blanket, in a cardboard box and Judas brought it out to the back porch. As Judas kneeled, he felt tears coming on. He put his hand inside the box. He felt the warm fur between his fingers and prayed for a resurrection. Judas thought that if you believed hard enough in God — believed with everything—then a miracle was entirely possible. While he prayed, Judas thought of Lazarus rising from the tomb the next morning. Judas prayed until he sure he was heard. He confidently marched upstairs and, after wiping his eyes, told his mother that tomorrow would be a better day.

The next morning—when he found the cold kitten—Judas lost his faith.

 

On the altar, eyes closed tightly, Judas saw visions of his past. He saw visions of himself as an adulterer and liar — a cheat. He saw visions of what he thought may have been. He saw tears, he saw pain and he saw a coward that didn’t have the courage to confess face to face. Her saw her face crying, and then he saw it smiling. He couldn’t place the smile, but for a moment he couldn’t help but smile, too.

Judas didn’t know what he was praying for exactly. He was confident that the screaming of his heart was loud enough that if God was listening, if he ever had been, then he would be able to decipher.

“Welcome.”

Judas turned to see a gray-haired man he did not recognize in priest’s vestments.

“Hi.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Judas nodded. The priest walked towards the sanctuary.

“Father, wait.”

The priest turned.

“Father, can you hear a confession right now?”

The priest hesitated. Judas just stared at the man. After a moment, the priest nodded. He pointed to a confessional booth.

“So, we won’t be interrupted.”

Judas told the priest all the worst things he had done in his life. When he felt he was heard, he asked a question.

“So Father, what do I do?”

“You’ve already told her what you did. You say that was the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But this will be much harder for you than that.”

Judas heard the priest exhale.

“If you truly want God’s forgiveness, then as his voice, I order you to forgive yourself.”

Judas shook his head.

“But how can I? I can’t do that.”

“Son, if you can’t—then why should anyone else?”

“Thank you, Father. Maybe they shouldn’t.” Judas got up to leave.

"Sit, please."

Judas sat back down and the priest continued.

“I’m giving you permission to do that — to forgive yourself. I’ve heard worse things in here and I’ve given worse people that same permission.” The priest heard Judas exhale. “The ones who don’t — well, some I see again but I never see them live again. If they look me in the eye, and most do, I can see their will to live quietly suffocating somewhere behind their pupils. Its like watching somebody trapped under ice that has stopped swimming.”

Another deep breath. “You have to let it go.”

On that Christmas Eve morning, Judas finally found enough rope to hang himself.

A young man named Derek rose from his tomb, faith restored — if only in himself.

Derek walked down the steps. As he hopped off of the last church step, he could feel the warmth of the winter sun warming the Christmas air filling his nostrils, then filling his throat, and his heart. Things would get better.

Read More By Doug Dean

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Portland Fiction Project

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