Snow covered everything in sight. The sun was partly covered by clouds that promised more precipitation. Pine trees glittered in the light that was slowly fading. Children ran and laughed in the snow. A few people were out shoveling their driveways. No one was grumbling or complaining. Christmas lights and decorations colored every house. Happiness was in the air.
Darko’s truck pulled into the driveway of Cynnie’s house. He got out of the car. He was wearing a heavy winter coat, a fleece Packers hat, and winter boots. He appeared calm on the outside. It was only a day after he had gained John’s acceptance. They had told Cynnie right away. In her joy, she invited Darko over for their Christmas celebration on the 24th.
Darko had not spent Christmas with someone he cared about since he had been arrested. It meant a lot to him that he would be with a real family again. Apparently, everyone was coming over. He knew Ben liked him, but he hoped everyone else could accept him. He wanted to have a good time. He vowed to try hard to please everyone.
Cynnie answered the door. She was holding her young nephew Vince in her arms. Her face brightened. “Hey, Darko. Come on in.”
Everyone else was already there. Darko could not remember them all, so he was reintroduced. They were all acting pleasant towards him, but he would tell it was forced. They did not know what to think about him. Fine. He would just have to prove himself.
“Do you like the weather?” Antonio Perrino asked as he took off his coat.
Darko held in a groan. “I’ve never been this cold in my life. And I have never seen this much snow!”
“You’re from the South, right?” Helen said. Her belly was swollen with a baby coming in a couple of months.
Darko nodded. “I was in Michigan last winter, but it was not this cold. It was still freezing, though there was hardly any snow.”
“That was nothing!” Ben exclaimed. “It was so warm last winter.”
Darko blinked. “I think we have a different definition of warm.”
Cynnie laughed. “You’ll get used to it.”
“I’ve got an idea,” John said. He seemed to come out of nowhere. He was holding a football in his hands. “Let’s go outside and play some ball.”
Darko’s mouth fell open. He stared at John like he was crazy. He thought they had gotten over their problems. Was he trying to freeze him to death? The Louisianan was usually quite calm, but this was insane! “Have you lost your mind?” he exclaimed. “We’ll all die!”
Everyone in the room stared at him. Then they all looked at each other and burst out laughing. Darko did not understand what was so funny. This was serious!
“The Packers play in this weather,” Cynnie pointed out.
“And the fans watch,” Ben added.
Darko blinked. He remembered the game he had gone to with Cynnie a couple weeks ago. That was very cold too, though having so many people so close and standing up and cheering had seemed to warm him. Playing in it had to be a different experience altogether. He shook his head. “I’m not from the North.”
“Favre is from the South,” John said. “He had an amazing home record, especially in the cold.”
Darko frowned. “Obviously, he’s a Wisconsinite at heart.”
Everyone laughed again. Cynnie set down Vince before patting his shoulder. “You’ll be fine.”
Darko had no choice but to put his jacket back on and head outside. Helen and Vince were the only two who were not going to play. They stayed inside where they could watch from the window. Everyone else formed a line in the yard. Darko shivered. Ben and John were the captains.
“I choose Dad,” Ben declared. Antonio grinned as he ran over to join his son.
“I’ll have to choose Mom then,” John said. Molly did not say anything as she joined the team.
“Cynnie,” Ben said. Cynnie smiled at Darko before heading over to the other side.
“Darko,” John declared. Darko blinked in surprise. He knew he and John were on better terms, but he did not expect him to actually choose him to play on his team. And now he would have to face off against Cynnie. Perhaps that was the point. Oh well. There was nothing he could do about that. He jogged over to join John and Molly.
Daisy and Megan, Cynnie’s sister who was on winter vacation from college, were the only two left. Ben chose Daisy, much to John’s dismay. Darko could not help but smirk. Now John had to play against his new wife. This would be fun for them both. That left his team with Megan. The young girl seemed shy but capable. She merely nodded at Darko.
Once the teams were picked, a coin was flipped. John’s team would go first. Then each team huddled together. Darko wondered if these Wisconsinites could actually play football. Form how closely they watched the Packers, they had to have picked up something. Darko, on the other hand, had not played the sport since high school. He had only begun to watch football that year. He wondered how he would fair.
John still held the football. “Ok, Favre, you play quarterback,” he said, pushing the ball into Darko’s chest.
Darko blinked in surprise. “Why me?”
“Because John throws like a girl,” Molly said. Megan laughed.
John’s face fell. “I can catch though.”
Darko glanced at Megan. “What can you do?”
“I don’t usually play, but I can run fast,” the girl said.
“And I can protect the quarterback,” Molly said.
Darko hesitated. He was not sure if it was a good idea for him to play quarterback. But he knew better than to refuse. He would have to try. And, ok, he had watched a little football in the last 9 years. He had seen the NFC Championship game in 2010, the Vikings versus the Saints. He had seen Favre play with the Packers as well. The quarterback was not intriguing to him merely because of the similarities in their situations. Rivals aside, who could help but love him? Even then, Vikings fans seemed to accept him very quickly for people who once said they hated him.
“So, what’s the play going to be?” John asked.
Darko blinked. He had to come up with a play now? He tried to think of what he had seen Aaron Rodgers do. “I’ll pass it to you,” he said to John.
The team split up. The rules were briefly exchanged. Darko shivered as he waited to begin. Finally, they got into position. Molly snapped the ball to Darko before jumping up to defend him. The ball felt hard and rigid in his frozen hands.
He looked down the “field.” Molly was holding back her husband. Ben was covering John. Daisy was threatening to cross the line. Megan was down the field near Cynnie. In a split decision, he threw it to Megan. Cynnie leapt forward and caught the ball. Darko stared in slight shock. Finally, he regained his senses. He ran forward and tagged her, stopping her run.
She smirked at him. “Nice throw,” she taunted.
John shot him a look. “Nice going, Favre.”
Darko blinked. He winced before smiling sheepishly. “Sorry.”
He was a linebacker now. Ben was playing quarterback for the other team. Cynnie was a wide receiver facing off against Darko. She gave him a menacing look. He almost wanted to laugh. He was bigger than her, so he was able to prevent the football from being thrown to her. Darko’s team soon got the ball back.
“Just give me the ball,” Megan said in the huddle.
Everyone decided this was a good idea, so Darko went for it. After receiving the ball, he turned and handed it off to Megan. The younger girl ran for several yards, securing a first down. Darko smiled. This was actually kind of fun. And it was easy to forget about the cold when he was wrapped up in the events of the game.
Darko wanted to try throwing again. This time, John was open. Darko’s throw was shaky, but John caught it. Darko could feel his confidence building. This was what he needed to keep going. He threw the ball to John again, and then he rushed for a down on the next play. The yard was not that big, so they were almost there now.
“Can you catch?” Darko asked Megan in the huddle. She had not caught it the first time, but that might have been the throw and not her.
Megan faltered. “I don’t know.”
John shook his head. “It’s too risky.”
“They’ll see it coming if I throw it to you again,” Darko said. “Let’s try it.” Everyone reluctantly agreed. “You can do it,” he said encouragingly to Megan.
Darko looked to the left where John was as soon as he received the ball. Then he quickly turned to the left and threw it to Megan. She was already in the designated end zone. She reached up her arms and caught the ball.
Helen banged on the window inside and pointed to her watch. The time they had allotted to the game was up.
Darko’s face broke out into a huge grin. Without even thinking, he ran forward to embrace Megan. “You did it!” he cried.
Megan laughed as he picked her up and spun her around. “Great throw,” she said with a smile.
Darko was suddenly feeling very energetic. He ran down the yard with his arms in the air, cheering. He felt like a kid again. He could not remember feeling so alive. Everyone was watching him in amusement. Cynnie was laughing.
“You don’t have to celebrate like Brett!” John called. But he was smiling. When Darko walked over to him, he said, “Nice throwing.”
“And good job getting him to call Favre by his first name,” Cynnie said with a smirk.
John’s face fell. “What?”
Darko smiled. “Do you want the jersey back?”
John hesitated. “No. Keep it. I-” Before he could finish, a snowball was thrown at his chest. Darko turned to see little Vince giggling from the front steps.
A snowball fight started. Everyone but Antonio and Molly, who went back inside, were in on it. Finally, the whole group was red and tired. They all headed inside to warm up.
“You’re just in time for dinner,” Antonio said in a jolly way.
Dinner was fantastic. There was every kind of food Darko could remember having as a child. The hot chocolate felt amazing after being out in the cold. With the snow and everyone gathered around the table, it felt like a real Christmas for the first time.
Everyone had fun sharing stories. No one probed Darko about his past. They all seemed to have accepted him into their family. He was extremely grateful for this. After dinner, they all settled down to exchange presents.
Taz the terrier trotted into the room. He barked before hopping into Darko’s lap. Darko almost jumped in surprise. Cupcake, the chocolate lab, had already settled herself by Cynnie, who was laughing now. “He likes you,” she said with a smile.
Darko blinked. The white dog yipped at him and looked up at him expectantly. This was a good thing, right? Darko hesitantly stroked Taz’s back. Taz settled comfortably in his lap and laid his head down. Darko smiled slightly as he continued to pet him.
The family members exchanged presents first. Then Cynnie pulled out a triangular-shaped box and handed it to Darko. Taz hopped out of his lap. Darko smirked in amusement. “I wonder what this is,” he said. Sure enough, he opened the box to reveal a cheesehead hat. He laughed as he put it on his head. “Thank you, Cynnie.”
Cynnie grinned. “I knew you would like it.”
Darko pulled out a small box and handed it to her. “Here’s yours.”
It was a necklace. It was not very expensive, but it was what he could afford. She smiled and put it on. “Thank you.”
“I got you something too,” John said.
Darko blinked in surprise as John handed him a small box as well. “I did not get you anything,” he said dumbly.
John smiled wryly. “That’s alright. I found this last night.”
Darko curiously opened the box. It was a rope cross necklace. The cross was small, blue, and seemed to be made out of marble. Darko suddenly felt overwhelmed. He looked up at John, unsure of what to say. Everyone else was staring at them.
John shrugged. “If no one has asked you yet, I think we would all like it if you joined us for Christmas Mass tomorrow morning.”
Darko found himself nodding. “I would love to.” He numbly slipped the cross over his head. It felt strange. But it was good. “Thank you.” And he sincerely meant it.
It was a beautiful Christmas morning. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. The snow glittered on the trees, grass, and rooftops. The scent of fresh pine filled the air. Many people were sleeping in from the active night. Others were celebrating their joy in church. At St. Mary Magdalene’s, joyful singing filled the air.
Cynnie could not have been happier. She could not remember the last time Mass had felt like this. Perhaps John had been right. Maybe she should have never left. But then she might not have been in the position to meet Darko. And he had changed everything.
She could not express all the joy she felt at her family’s acceptance of her friend. Especially John’s. She was so glad he had finally broken through to him. She thought they would get along well once they gave each other a chance. The previous night it had seemed almost like Darko was a part of their family. He fit in. He belonged.
She was happy for him. She was also happy that she could see him without fearing the judgment and disapproval of others. That would still be there – most people outside her family still hated him – but she would have a stronger defense now. Her family’s support had given her everything she needed. It appeared that the same could be said of Darko.
Darko was wearing the cross John had given him. She wondered if he was accepting religion again too. It certainly seemed that way. Perhaps they could start going to Mass together. No one else in the church seemed to mind Darko. Afterwards, as they left for the commons, those from the Bible study gave him polite nods.
“Merry Christmas all,” Father Luke said as they approached him.
Cynnie smiled at him. “Merry Christmas, Father.”
Darko nodded. “Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you,” John said. He paused. “And merry Christmas.”
Cynnie invited Darko over for brunch. After, her immediate family exchanged more presents. Taz found Darko again and kept him company. He left after he gave him a new bone. “Hey, I’ve got something for your cat,” she said suddenly.
Darko blinked. “Really? That was nice of you. Do you want to come over and give it to her?”
Cynnie was reminded that she had not spent any time alone with Darko for awhile. She turned to her parents. Her father nodded at her. She looked at John. He hesitated before saying, “Well, go along then.”
Cynnie smiled. After they stood up, she took Darko’s hand in hers. He did not protest as they left the house. The weather was not too bad. She had definitely experienced much worse. She had to giggle at Darko’s reaction though. Southerners were funny in the cold.
They soon arrived at Darko’s apartment. Elva was there to greet them at the door. “Hello, girl,” Cynnie said with a smile. “I have something for you.” She pulled out a wrapped cat toy. Both she and Darko had fun watching Elva try to tear off the wrapper. Then they both walked over to the couch to sit down and relax.
The small room seemed quaint and comfortable. Cynnie leaned into Darko. He put his arm around her and she smiled. Her heart fluttered. She had missed being close to him. She breathed deeply, inhaling his scent. “It has been quite a Christmas, hasn’t it?” she said wistfully. She rested her head against his shoulder.
“It’s been amazing,” Darko said. He was silent for awhile. Then he added, “Thank you.”
Cynnie blinked. She pulled away from him so that she could look at him. “For what?”
“For believing in me,” Darko said. He was staring at her seriously. “And for standing by my side.”
Cynnie smiled warmly at him. “Thank you for being a great example. I’m sure everyone will see the truth soon.”
Darko placed his right hand on her cheek and stared into her eyes. Cynnie found herself mesmerized. His eyes were so blue. “As long as we’re together, I feel like that’s possible.”
Cynnie could not help herself. She leaned forward and kissed him. Darko seemed surprised, but he kissed her back. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer to her. The energy between them was electric. She had kissed plenty of guys in the past, but this was different. This was real.
After awhile, they broke away and leaned their foreheads against each other. Cynnie brought her hands down to rest against his chest. She was breathing heavily. “Where’s your bedroom?” she asked silkily.
“There’s no need,” Darko said after a moment of hesitation.
“Your couch seems uncomfortable,” Cynnie commented. She pushed his head down and kissed him again.
Darko kissed her back. As she began to deepen the kiss, he suddenly broke away and pushed her back so that there was space between them. Cynnie looked at him in shock. His expression was troubled. He seemed to be struggling with something. “No,” he said firmly. “We can’t do that.”
Cynnie frowned. “Why not?” she asked innocently.
Darko shook his head. “You know why.”
It took a moment for her to connect the dots. She remembered his offense. “This is different from what you did last time,” she said. “This is voluntary.”
“It’s legal,” Darko said. “That does not make it right.”
A puzzled look crossed Cynnie’s face. Had his ostracism given him a false view of sex? “People do this all the time.”
“That does not make it right either.” He let out a heavy sigh. “Listen.” He looked at her earnestly. “They convicted me for forcibly having sex with a girl. Sex offenders are the most hated group of criminals – and people, right?”
Cynnie nodded slowly. “Right.” Where was this going?
“There is a reason for this. Sex is a very serious matter. It is something very special and important. That is why it is seen as so repulsive for someone to forcibly take it from someone else. If sex is deemed as so important, why should someone give it away so easily? Should it not be reserved for a special someone – your spouse? Why is it alright for me to take something so precious from you just because you agree to it? I won’t let you do it.”
Cynnie stared at him. She had never heard it put in that way. She had always thought those who were against sex before marriage believed what they did because their religion told them to. She did not know there were actual logical reasons for it. It made sense. But she was not willing to give up yet. “But it’s too late for me,” she said almost guiltily. “I’m not a virgin.” She wondered where this new sense of shame came from; it was certainly something she had not used to feel. It had seemed like a natural part of life.
Darko’s face immediately hardened. “Too late? I guess it’s too late for me because I’ve already committed a crime. I guess I will be a rapist forever.”
Cynnie gasped. “That’s not what I meant!”
Darko turned away. “That’s what makes it worse.” His body was rigid and tense.
A wave of dismay passed over Cynnie. She had not meant to hurt him. She could not help but feel hurt as well. “I guess I should go,” she mumbled. Darko did not respond. She looked back at him regretfully before leaving the apartment. The day had started out so great. How had everything turned out so wrong?