E J Delaney lives in Brisbane, Australia, and writes fiction for children of all ages (including teens and adults!). https://www.ejdelaney.com/

Image of Short Circuit - Short Circuit #12
Kate had butterflies in her stomach.
Tonight was the nativity play; everything they'd rehearsed for the last month. Kate knew her lines and her song. She was fine with that. The problem was, they weren't going to make it.
"We're late!" she wailed.
"No, honey." Her dad winced and overtook a truck. "We'll be fine. There's plenty of time."
"When were we supposed to be there?" her mum asked.
Past tense, Kate noted. Past tense!
She craned her neck, looking for the dashboard clock. Outside, unfamiliar roads blurred in the twilight. How far was it from the airport to the school?
Too far!
Kate clutched at her trumpet. Beside her, Grandad stirred. His gnarled old fingers closed gently over her other hand.
"My fault, I'm afraid, dear," he rumbled. "Of course I couldn't miss your debut, but I should have booked an earlier flight. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Grandad. It's just, I think I might miss my debut!"
"No, no. The theatre always runs late. The best actors embrace it. It's all about making an entrance."
"Is that something Ruth Cracknell taught you, Grandad?"
As a young man, Kate's grandad had once played alongside Cracknell. Now, in his twilight years, he'd flown halfway across the country to watch Kate in the grade five nativity play.
Kate loved her grandad. She wished she could have seen him onstage, back before his knees went.
"The most important thing I learnt from Cracknell, Little K, is that you don't have to be as good as Cracknell. Why, there was this one time when . . ."
Grandad launched into a story of the old days, and Kate felt herself relax. Grandad's right, she thought. The point is to have fun. Even if we are late, what's the worst that can happen?
Before she knew it they were lurching to a stop outside the school hall. Kate's composure burst against the pull of her seatbelt.
"Oh, no," she moaned. "Everyone's inside already!"
"You go ahead," her dad told her. "We'll find our seats and see you in there. Good luck, honey!"
Kate flung the door open. Trumpet in hand, she jumped down.
Grandad winked at her. "Break a leg, Little K."
* * *
Backstage, it was the storm before the calm. Angels straightened each other's halos. The camels argued with the three wise women. And despite the best efforts of Ms. Böhm and the innkeeper, the twin babies Jesus were crying.
Breathless, Kate ducked behind the curtain.
"At last!" a voice accused.
A bossy-looking girl in a humble shawl and a pillow up her dress grabbed her by the arm. This was Mackenzie—or for one night only, Mary. She towed Kate over to the costume bin.
"Quick, get dressed. We're on in a minute, and I don't want to rock up to the inn with only half an ass!"
With that she hurried off, shouting for Joseph. Kate was left standing beside a grey, floppy-eared figure. It was, unmistakably, the front half of a donkey.
Kate stared in horror. "Gus? What are you—?"
The donkey gave a miserable shrug.
"Sorry, Kate. You weren't here, and Mackenzie said I might have to go on by myself."
"But I'm meant to be the front!"
"I know. I'm sorry. But—"
"Achtung!" Ms. Böhm shouted, clapping her hands. "Last call, Fives! Curtain up in twenty seconds."
"Quick," Kate tugged at the donkey's tail. "Get out!"
"No time! You'll have to get in."
"No, but—"
As the audience settled down, Kate heard Grandad's voice in her head, chuckling at memories of long ago; of actors who missed their marks and villains who strode onstage without their swords.
She remembered the one unbreakable rule of the theatre: the show must go on.
Gritting her teeth, she tucked her trumpet under one arm, found the empty leg-holes, and struggled into the back half of the donkey costume. She'd only ever worn the front and was used to getting in first. By the time she realized she had it on the wrong way, it was too late.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Ms Böhm announced. "Please welcome the Knoorre-Knoorre Primary grade fives!"
There was applause, then the swish of the curtain, and Jake Witherington as the narrator:
"It was the night before Christmas—as we know it now—and a bright star shone high over Bethlehem town . . ."
Offstage, Ryan struck up a slow clip-clop rhythm using two coconut halves. Angus shuffled forward into the light.
Kate, like a busted concertina, found herself pulled along after him.
* * *
She'd wanted to impress Grandad—not just with her trumpeting, but as an actress. She remembered auditioning for the part of Mary and thinking how proud he'd be; how she'd follow in his footsteps. But she'd been pipped by Mackenzie and then overlooked even as a wise woman.
On the same day Grandad booked his flight, Kate was cast as the front half of the donkey.
Still, she'd vowed to do her best. She'd rehearsed and rehearsed, even dragging Angus along to extra practice during lunchtimes. She'd been so excited!
Now it was all going wrong. Angus didn't know the lines and Kate couldn't see anything or make out the cues. People were laughing.
And it wasn't just that the donkey had a funny walk. It was the wrong shape. With Kate facing the tail, she and Angus were like a lumpy grey camel with its hump sliding off the back.
A Christmas nightmare, Kate thought.
They stumbled through their performance, each goof prompting hoots of laughter. The noise was muffled by her costume, but still loud. It rang in Kate's ears and echoed around the pit of her stomach. Finally, when she trod on Mackenzie's foot and sent Mary, mother of Jesus, tumbling, even her father joined in. His laugh was the croak of a dying frog.
I won't cry, Kate told herself. Whatever happens, I won't cry.
But then it was time for her song. The final humiliation.
It should have been a triumph: the donkey worshiping the newborn saviors, joined by a chorus of wise women and angels. Instead, bad turned to worse.
Angus moved them over to nuzzle the holy twins. Gabriel gathered the heavenly choir.
Fighting for room inside the costume, Kate raised her trumpet.
"So, in the stable, the baby kings lay," Jake narrated, "and drifted asleep to the donkey's soft bray . . ."
Mary and Joseph stood close. The camels began swaying.
Tenderly, reverently, the donkey blew Silent Night.
Through its bottom.
* * *
As soon as the curtain closed, Kate fled. She shrugged off her half of the donkey suit and ran out the side door, into the carpark. Grandad was there leaning against the car.
She threw herself at him.
"Hush, Little K. Where are you running to in such a hurry? What's the matter?"
"Didn't—didn't you see?" Kate buried her face in his waistcoat. "It was awful! I—I—"
"Nonsense, dear. You were marvelous." He patted her on the back. "A fine piece of improvisation. Truly, K. The audience loved it."
"They—they did?"
"My word! You turned a boring old play into a first-rate comedy. You stole the show!"
"Well . . ."
"They'll talk about it for years. The Nativity of the Fluffing Donkey! And when you're a famous actress, why, won't you have a story to tell?"
Kate thought about this. She felt some of Grandad's warmth seep into her; some of his love.
"Did—did Ruth Cracknell ever—?"
"Goodness me, no!" Grandad held her tight. "No, Little K, Cracknell was never, ever as good as you were tonight!"

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