Chapter Ten

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When I was a kid, Christmas morning began with a race between Gil and me to see who could get to the tree first. The lights would be on—always attributed to Santa—and the whole thing was like a beacon in the darkened living room. And then, when we were satisfied that we hadn't been forgotten, we'd rush back upstairs to drag Mom and Dad to the living room so we could open our presents.

This year, I wake up early from habit and stare at the ceiling. The house is quiet, but just beyond the window I can hear a car drive by, and the sound of another neighbor trying to get everyone into the car for their trip to the in-laws'.

I make my bed, put on some fuzzy socks, and go to the living room to plug up the tree. Gray light filters through the curtains. Just beyond them, the driveway and yard are shiny with frost.

I start a pot of coffee for Mom and Dad and pour a bowl of cereal for myself. No rush to get them out of bed, though I know they're probably already awake and just waiting to start the day. But these quiet moments by myself at the kitchen counter are a nice way to reflect on the day ahead, and the ones behind.

When Mom and Dad shuffle into the kitchen, I've already finished my breakfast. There are a few presents under the tree, things that have been placed there over the last week or so. It only takes a few minutes to open them. A small toolbox for Dad. A set of earrings for Mom. And for me, a green velvet dress that will be a perfect one to wear tonight.

Once the ribbon and paper are cleared away, it's time to get everything ready for the party.

* * *

Guests start arriving around five, bearing small presents or a plate of a sweets or a side dish to add to the crowded counters. It's a rapid-fire flurry of greetings and how-are-yous and ushering in people out of the chilly air. A small group gathers in the kitchen to finish setting up the food, but most are in the living room. In the guest room, the younger kids congregate to show off their new toys or to play one of the board games we keep stashed in the toy trunk just for parties like this.

No sign yet of Merritt and Nash. Maybe they changed their minds.

Overlapping conversations include politics, theology, recipes, and what sounded like a fun debate over some classic movie. I can't keep track of them all, so I meander, moving from room to room to check in with everyone. I like the camaraderie of the chaos. There's something about all of this energy and noise humming through the house, blended with the sweet and savory smells of the food and the warm glow of the lights, that makes everything feel like it's going according to plan, even if there were some things that didn't.

I return to the kitchen to help Mom with the last batch of bread rolls, brushing butter over the tops and then setting them in the large serving bowl on the table.

A knock at the door is just loud enough to be heard over the noise, and I hesitate a second at the kitchen doorway to see who it is. Dad opens the door. I don't know who he expected to see standing on the other side, but it must not have been the Kingston boys.

"Hey!" I take Dad's place and wave them in. "I'm so glad you guys could make it!"

"Merry Christmas, Lydia!" Nash greets me with a quick hug. "Look what I got!"

He holds up the train from the playset and a green car for inspection and approval. "Those are very cool," I tell him, casting a quick glance at Merritt. "You guys can put your coats in the guest room if you want, plus you can play in there too."

They follow me down the hallway to the room. A few quick introductions and Nash is waved over to show off his toys with the other kids.

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