The Ebersold’s were almost home. Lara Ebersold had lost her sister Nan that evening to a stroke. David didn’t know much of what to say, only to remind her that it was okay to feel angry. It was okay if you want to hit things, he said. She gripped the armrest, pulled her knees together, and set her head against the cold glass of the window. Her eyes were leaking thin tears and she had a headache.
“How does it happen? God, how does this happen to somebody?” David said. “Nan was such a sweet lady.” He shook his head. “Mmmm.” He didn’t know how to hurt like Lara was hurting, so he decided to get her attention on things that he knew and that they could grieve together, thinking it would offer Lara some company in her pain.
“The world lost one of the sweetest ladies tonight. I’m sorry sweetheart. It also lost one of the best cooks.” He meant this to lighten things up. “Do you remember our wedding cake? People wouldn’t stop talking about it. Hell, Evan was talking about it week before last. I told him we’ve still got some saved.” David felt that he’d gone ahead of himself.
“She’d been through so much with us,” he said.
Lara didn’t know if David was manufacturing sentiment for her sake, but it felt like it.
“Baby, what’s going through your head?” David said. He just kept talking, and she kept quiet.
Outside, houses lit with icicle lights loomed in the darkness. Suburbs with bristling wreaths and plastic reindeer. Maple trees, gaunt and stripped of their autumn fire. Mailboxes full of catalogs. Garbage cans full of beer cans and wrapping paper tubes. Empty lots of unmown grass. The winding road.
The Ebersold house was quiet. The kitchen and living room lights were on. Their neighbor’s daughter Emma had agreed at the last second to look after the kids. Emma was certain there would be more money for the late notice and so she came right over after basketball practice.
This would be the hard part, and they both knew it. Because neither their son nor daughter had been told yet, Lara would have to keep the wound open. The kids were close to their aunt, too. There were four presents from Aunt Nan, two for each child, already under the tree. Lara could see one of them in her head. It was a floor puzzle for Liam, with twenty-five pieces big enough that he might work them with his four-year-old hands and his four-year-old mind. She could just see the puzzle box laid out on the white side of wrapping paper and her sister Nan looking through a Tupperware bin for scotch tape with her short, round, white, wrinkled fingers. Like little bristles on a brush, those fingers. Lara had watched those fingers knead corn meal, thread a wedding band, struggle over geometry homework, and knot a fishing line. Nan was dear to the children, and she never had her own kids.
But Lara did. They weren’t sleeping—Lara saw lights come on in their bedrooms—but there wouldn’t be any discipline for missed bedtimes. She guessed Emma heard the news and knew it would be an extenuating circumstance.
David spoke up, “We’ll tell them in the morning. I don’t think I can do it tonight.”
“Tonight,” Lara said, looking toward their burden. “I can’t wait. I’ve got to have it all out, now,” she said.
“How do we say it?” David asked. She just frowned and cried a little more, slowly wiping her cheeks with her cuff. She didn’t frown. She shook her head.
“Let’s just spit it out, just get it all out,” she said. She curled her lips, looked earnestly at him, and stepped out of the car into the freezing indigo night.
David ungloved and fumbled with his wallet as they walked in, hoping to have Emma paid and out immediately.
“Hark! To all ye shepherds!” This voice rang out from the top of the stairwell. It was Olivia, their daughter. Olivia was seven. She wore her white pajama robe and held the lampshade from Lara’s office as a makeshift megaphone.
“Glory to God in the hiyiss!” And this was from Liam, also atop the stairs, dressed also in white. He was wearing a pillow like a sack, holding up the edges. Plush toys were in attendance at their feet. A horse, a pig, Winnie the Pooh, a dolphin, and a Batman from Liam’s small collection. Emma was behind a doorframe, whispering lines to them.
“Peace to men, a child is born,” Liam said, throwing his arms out and smiling.
“No!” Olivia said and scowled back at Emma. “Not yet.” Olivia was embarrassed and stormed over to Emma in hopes of getting something worked out. Liam forged on with the show. Seeing the animals at his feet, he said, “And they went two by two.” He sat on the top step in his white sack and appropriated an ark from a basket off-stage. He made ocean noises with his mouth, wooshing and gushing.
“That’s the manger, idiot,” said Olivia.
Lara tried to say, “We don’t say those words.”
“Gimme that,” Olivia continued, and Liam handed it over. Olivia turned back at Emma, glaring, raging, clenching her fist. She conjured a somber face and announced, “A decree goes out to all of Judea!” But Liam was still in his apocalyptic reverie. He lay on his back and made a shhhhhhh, sprinkling the animals with the imagined wrathful judgment of God. This was it for Olivia. All of her preparation for a Christmas play had been foiled. She sat on the step by Liam and put her head on her knees.
David started up the stairs, but there was a knock on the door. Lara opened it to Emma’s mother.
“I heard,” she said. She frowned and called up the stairs, “Emma, baby, let’s get on home.”
Emma came forward and knelt by Olivia and whispered something to her, patting her head.
“I’m so sorry, Lara,” Emma’s mother said. Emma came downstairs and David handed her the money.
“Sorry about what?” the babysitter asked, looking between faces.
“Let’s get on home, baby,” Emma’s mother said. “We’ve—”
But suddenly Liam was shouting from the second story:
“Hey! Tuss the night before Chrismuss! And the mom was ready to have a baby.” He had shoved the stuffed horse into his pillowcase to simulate pregnancy. “Oh no, I’ve got a baby Sissy,” Liam said. “It’s really Jesus. You’ve got to believe me.”
Olivia looked up and saw that she had a true audience: four people, grown-ups, all looking up the stairs in shock or anticipation. She stood and gathered her breath. She straightened her robe and stood Liam up, whispering something to him. She took the horse from Liam and stuffed it into her robe.
“If you need anything, please let us know,” Emma’s mother said and put her hand to the door latch.
“Wait,” Lara said, never taking her eyes from her daughter. Lara went down to her knees at the foot of the stairs and rested her hands on her thighs. David sidled up beside her while she took his hand and put it on her shoulder.
“Go, sweetheart,” she said. “We’re ready.”