A valley awash with lights, painting ghostly lines up the buildings to set them against the inky night sky. Las Vegas, like every other city, possessed a hidden view of beauty in a poet’s eye. Within the city, among the towering edifices, standing in the entrance to The Blue Room Casino and Hotel’s parking garage, Dale Carmichael was neither a poet, nor in a position to see the vast city stretch out before him. He pushed his glasses further up the bridge of his nose and sighed. Jerking the lapel of his ill-fitting uniform straight again, he wandered back into the attendant station. The small booth reminded him of his apartment near the edge of the city, both being of equal size. And both coffee makers locked on the too-weak-to-caffeinate-a-cockroach setting. And the walls of the booth were thicker. And the booth had a television, albeit broken.
Dale ignored the groan of the chair as he sat down upon it. Management said replacing chairs on their last legs wasn’t high on their list of priorities unless he was a patron or worked in the gaming areas. Resigned to the ultimatum that if he didn’t want his rent checks bouncing, he supposed the depressed chair would be his friend for a long while yet. Dale picked up the battered copy of Les Miserablés his girlfriend gave him and opened it to the place he left off. “At that moment,” he read, “she suddenly felt that the bucket was gone. A hand, which seemed enormous to her, had just caught the handle, and was carrying it easily.”
The sudden screech of tires against the asphalt outside caused him to look up. Through the window, Dale saw a blue Plymouth Voyager creak to a halt just outside the turn-in. From the driver’s side, a towering broad-shouldered man almost tumbled in his frenzy to get out. He tore over to the booth and banged on the window. Dale slid his hand under the desk to the concealed pepper spray. The man’s deeply-tanned features showed more panic than aggression.
“Please! Can you let us in?” the man yelled, rapping again on the glass. He stepped back a few feet and waved toward the van, “My wife, she-“
“Sir, I’m afraid you’ll have to go around front,” said Dale, leaning forward to speak through the grille, “Check in at the main lobby.” The phone in the booth remained silent next to the coffeemaker, and did not ring to notify him of a new guest. Come to think of it, he thought, didn’t management say we’re full already? “Look, I don’t even know if there’s room. You might try La Qui-“
“Please!” Brown eyes growing wilder, the man dug into his jeans pocket, pulled out a battered billfold, and shoved a couple twenties through the grille. “I just need a safe place to park!” He pointed at his idling van. “My wife’s going to give birth!”
Dale blinked. Then turned his stare to the van, eyes widening as Les Miserablés fell from his fingers to the table.
* * *
Twenty miles outside the city, Robert Packer decided to conduct a midnight raid on the granola bars. Sitting up, he grunted as his forehead met the canvas roof of the tent. Having one’s own tent on a trip like this might be convenient for late night bush runs, but when one was six-foot, two inches tall and packing 250 pounds, a pup tent was just another sleeping bag. The biker managed to crawl out and stood for a moment to enjoy the night.
If he faced east and raised his chin, he could see the stars, undimmed by the horizon of light that was Las Vegas. Grandma showed him the different constellations when he was ten. He and his older sister bundled up late at night whenever they visited her home and she took them to a high hill. Then, as they let out of steamy breath in the chilly Virginia night, Grandma pointed them out, tracing them one by one: Hydrus, Edriunus, Andromeda – his sister’s favorite after she read the Greek legend – and Cetus, the sea serpent and Robert’s favorite.
Robert’s stomach growled and he turned toward the bikes. He and his friends hid them behind a patch of acacia close by, then tucked their food away with them after dinner. He yawned as he picked his way through the rough undergrowth. A distant howl caused him to start and trip over a half-buried rock to fall flat on his stomach. Groaning, he pushed himself to his hands and knees.
A hand reached down. Robert took it and was helped to his feet. Looking at his unknown benefactor undid the work that introduced him and Robert stumbled back and fell on his rear, mouth gaping.
A man, two feet taller than Robert, smiled down at him. “Do not be afraid,” he said, raising a massive hand. From the looks of his Herculean frame, the stranger could have easily played basketball if he didn’t get a job as a living Greek sculpture. Every feature, every detail exuded illumination, soft light without a source, and no shadows fell across him. His clothes possessed simplicity in form as well as in color. To Robert, they reminded him of his old white karate gi complete with a belt of silver. Instead of shoes or boots, the stranger wore sandals in the cold desert night.
“Who are you?” Robert leaned forward, legs like dry sand before the onslaught of the sea.
The smile widened on the man’s face. The light across his form brightened and extended across the plain of the Mojave until no shadows darkened Robert either. “Do not be afraid,” the stranger repeated, “For behold I bring you good tidings of a great joy which will be to all people.” His voice echoed, though the valleys were far away. The ground reverberated beneath them. “For there is born to you this day in the city of Vegas a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Robert blinked. “A ‘Savior?’”
“And this will be the sign to you: you will find a baby, wrapped in an extra-large gray t-shirt in a blue 1997 Plymouth Voyager.”
Managing to regain his feet at last, Robert stared at the man. His mind scurried for a rational explanation and he rubbed his eyes to make sure this was not a dream. When he could see again, he saw the stranger for a split second longer before he vanished. No thunderclaps or cloud of smoke announced his departure – one moment, he was there amidst pale and radiant light, and the next, Robert stood alone, eyes readjusting to the darkness and ears still ringing from the reverb of the stranger’s voice.
Robert turned, granola bars forgotten, and ran back toward the temporary campground. As he approached, he spotted Ian and Lee, standing before their tents. “Guys,” he called, stumbling in his haste to return, “You won’t believe this!”
But they were already talking as soon as they saw him. Lee, a tall teen with Asian features and camo trousers ran a hand through his short hair, shaking his head. “Some guy in white just showed up.”
Ian nodded, blue eyes wide. “And he glowed. That’s what woke us up. He, well, he glowed.” Robert knew his friend enjoyed science fiction novels and wasn’t surprised he latched on to that aspect of the encounter. “And he vanished.” Ian passed his hands over one another in a vague gesture. “Like that.”
“Same thing happened to me.” Robert described the encounter, the clothes the man wore and his face; his friends nodded in adamant agreement. They, too, received word-for-word the same message, about the Christ child and the Plymouth in Las Vegas.
“And then he vanished. Whoosh!” Ian said again, causing Lee and Robert to grin at each other. He frowned. “It definitely wasn’t a dream.”
As if to punctuate the point, the light surged all around them again; white, clear, banishing all darkness around them. Eyes forced shut against the incredible glare, Robert put up his hand as a familiar voice rumbled all around him, joined by a multitude of others, “Glory to God in the highest!”
Robert, Ian, and Lee opened their eyes, squinting as the light dimmed to a soft deluge rather than an overwhelming tide. The man stood above them, twenty feet in midair. The radiant light again emanated from his form and from the forms of many more. Other men and women, dressed in similar simple and white clothes, floated beside him. Not just three or four or a dozen, but thousands. Their voices boomed out in unison, mingling and trembling the rough desert earth below Robert’s boots. “And on earth peace, good will toward men!” They sang, rising higher and higher into the sky.
The three bikers stayed and watched them until they were as stars in distant space. Then, Robert tore his eyes away and looked to his friends. “Whoa,” he managed to croak out. The song continued on in his mind though the singers had vanished. A heavy weight pressed upon his being, warm and whole
Ian nodded, a grin breaking out on his face. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Nodding, Robert turned to Lee, but the younger man was already loping down the track to where they stashed their bikes.
* * *
Dale scratched his head, bemused. Forty bucks was forty bucks, but he felt miserly taking from people in their moment of need. He offered to call an ambulance but the man’s emphatic refusal offered no argument. Tapping the pocket that held his wallet, he jumped as something bumped the grill. Looking up, Dale smiled when his girlfriend Michelle entered the booth.
Off from her waitress shift, his girlfriend rubbed her blue eyes and smiled. Collapsing into the chair next to him, she gave him a light kiss on the cheek. “Hey, Dale.” Her purple painted nails scratched her nose, then pushed a strand of her dark hair back over her brow. “What a night. The seven o’clock rush spilled over into nine thirty. Michael was ‘sick’ again so I had to wait an extra hour until his replacement showed.” She straightened in her chair. “Oh, yeah. Did you know the gate is still up?”
Blinking, Dale leaned forward to look out the grill. “Oh, oops,” he said, seeing the yellow bar still at the ninety angle from when he let the van in. “Speaking of which…” he told Michelle about the panicked man and his story.
Her eyes widened. “But is his wife okay?” Rising to her feet, Michelle reached out for the door. “Did you call the hospital?”
“Uh, no,” Dale remembered the midwife classes Michelle took when she was in high school – she had the same intense look after coming out of them. “Michelle, what are you-“
She was gone, the door swinging shut. With a small groan, he stood up and followed.
* * *
Their motorcycle engine rumbles soon added into the hubbub of the crowded Vegas streets. Around the bikers, harried traffic cops held up the long lines of cabs and buses and hotel shuttles so the late-night concert-goers could spread their masses all over the Strip. Robert recalled seeing posters for the new boy band The Census playing in Las Vegas. Any girl between the ages of eleven and 25 with a ride and fifty bucks would have braved Himalayan blizzards to watch one of their concerts. Robert glanced at his watch. One fifteen. I guess the concert just ended.
Picking their way through the crowds, the three were forced to stop more than once. Robert caught sight of Lee talking with pedestrians; from the excited look on his face and his hand gestures, he appeared to be telling others about their encounter. Turning to nudge Ian, Robert found the other doing the same with a bemused Japanese tourist and his family. Robert half-laughed and grew even more surprised each as others stopped to listen to the two.
Two ladies, dressed in pantsuits and Prada handbags, walked up to him. “What’s going on?” the shorter one called over the sound of the engine.
Robert switched it off. “We saw…strange people…in the desert,” he said, “They said that today a savior is born here.” He described what he and the others saw, encouraged by the others. An irritated policeman shoved through the crowd fifteen minutes later and told everyone to move along. With some reluctance, the various listeners complied, still talking amongst themselves. Granted, skepticism showed on many faces, but more often it appeared to give way to interest and, perhaps, belief? The enormity of what this meant struck Robert: something was at work here that was bigger than he or Lee or Ian could imagine.
As Lee finished filling in the scowling traffic cop and as the last troupe of pedestrians reached the sidewalk, Robert started up his motorbike again. Now where did they say to find the kid?
* * *
Scratching his head, Dale watched as Michelle helped settle the man’s wife more comfortably in the back of the van. Various blankets and a few mismatched pillows supported her while she recovered. From a plastic grocery bag, the woman produced a jumble of clothes. One, an enormous gray t-shirt, she slipped around the baby, wrapping it snug.
“So, who are you?” Dale considered retracting the question the moment he said it. If they didn’t want him to call an ambulance to have their child born in a hospital, then they probably wanted to keep a semi-low profile. But his curiosity tugged at him, and since his girlfriend just helped with the delivery, they owed him a lot more than forty dollars. Or so he figured, anyway.
To his surprise, the man smiled. He appeared a great deal more relieved, given that his wife had delivered “It is all right,” he said, drawing a hand over his sleeping newborn son’s brow. “My name is Gosef, this is my wife Miriam. This is our son, Joshua.” A quiet pride and wonder turned his voice quiet, all panic from before banished.
“Do you live around here? Why didn’t you head for the hospital?” Dale felt bolder now that the man answered the question.
“The Census?” the man’s lips stretched into a grin.
“You took your wife to a concert when she was nine month’s pregnant?” A look of outrage crossed Michelle’s face, glaring from her seat on the van’s bumper next to Miriam.
“No, no,” laughed Miriam. She settled her son into the wheel well she had cushioned with a blanket. “We are related to the lead guitarist. Four days ago, Rolling Stone printed an article about their families and included pictures of us. Instead of going to a public hospital and being recognized and pestered for autographs, we decided it would be better this way.” The content glow of pride in her drawn face deepened as her son yawned.
“Do you have a phone?” Gosef looked up at Dale. “I would like to call them and let them know where we are.”
Before Dale could answer, the rumble of engines echoed throughout the parking garage, sounding as though they stayed at the entrance. He arose and headed down the row of parked cars toward the booth. Halfway there, three bikers in black leather and camo charged into view. One, a head taller than Dale and sporting a crew cut of grayish-black hair, spotted him.
* * *
“Look!” Robert pointed toward the valet. “Maybe he knows.” Jogging closer with Lee and Ian keeping pace, the biker grinned. “Hey! Sorry to barge in like this, but-“
Dale gulped and wished he hadn’t forgotten the mace back in the booth. “Have you checked in? Are you guests?”
“No, we-“ Robert was interrupted by Lee, who pulled on his elbow.
Glancing over his shoulder, Dale saw that he was pointing at the van where the family rested. The bikers stepped past him towards it. He blinked, mystified, and more bemused again than worried. “Friends of yours?” he asked, wondering if he should still go back for the mace. These guys didn’t look related to the man and his wife.
“It’s kind of a long story,” admitted Robert, halting a safe distance away from the open van. At the sight of the exhausted woman, the sleeping baby, and her tall, muscular husband who sat straighter when they approached, Robert felt awkward. How should I explain this? he wondered. He glanced over at Lee, the other chewing his bottom lip, likely wondering the same. Sure, telling the people on the street was easy, but what do I say to the actual people the angel told us about?
Ian took it upon himself before the silence grew too long. A bright smile crossed his face as he raised a hand in greeting. “Hi. We heard about your kid. From angels?” His smile faltered just a little, a note of apology in his tone at how crazy it must have sounded.
Miriam returned his smile with an exhausted, content one of her own, exchanging knowing glances with Gosef, whose guarded expression fell into one of surprise. “Welcome to the club. So did we.”