They carried in the tree on a frosty day, later in the dependable month of December than was usual for them. Lucille realized she was relieved they’d purchased one at all. As they navigated the lumbering pine through the narrow foyer of their old house, she made a joke at her own expense. Marnie didn’t laugh.
They slid it into the tree stand, which Lucille’d had the foresight to dig out from the closet upstairs, and she held the trunk in place while Marnie stooped over and screwed in the five little posts that magically managed to hold it in place. It seemed a miracle to Lucille that their tree (ranging in all varieties every year, consistent only in their hulking physiques) didn’t come toppling over, sending shards of family-heirloom ornaments scattering.
“Have you ever had to buy an ornament?” Lucille piped up. She was racking her brain, trying to think of an occasion where an attractive decoration had beckoned them to pick it up and carry it to the checkout. All she could see was Marnie lifting up the bottom to inspect the MADE IN sticker, then setting it down when she always found it to be China.
“I don’t think so,” Marnie puffed. She was panting from the exertion of turning those posts. Lucille thought the shortness of breath a bit bizarre. Certainly it wasn’t that hard?
“Want me to take over?” She offered, letting go of the tree. It rocked back dangerously.
“Luce!” Marnie screeched. Lucille reached out and steadied it.
“Sorry,” she apologized, red in the face. Marnie shook her head and went back to twisting. Her arms were thinner than usual, the exposed skin on the back of her neck paler. Lucille didn’t think she’d lost weight, but then again, she lived with her. Lots of times you missed the subtleties of change in a person when you spent your days with them.
“That’s it,” Marnie exhaled, barely able to push the words out. She stood up, brushing her hands off on her hips. Pine sap dotted her blue jeans. “Pretty good, right?”
Lucille stood back to survey their handiwork. She had started to nod along when she noticed the top of the tree--it was scraping the ceiling, bent over on itself. At least two feet needed to be clipped off.
“Marnie,” Lucille said, pointing it out to her. Marnie shrugged.
“That’s nothing. I’ll take care of it later.” She reached up to tighten her ponytail and drew yet another labored breath. “Come on upstairs. Let’s get the decorations.”
They carried the boxes of holiday cheer downstairs, Lucille making certain that she always picked up the heaviest ones. Before an hour had passed, the tree was alight with tinsel and their ancient collection of ornaments. The only thing that remained was the Angel in the shoebox upstairs, but first that pesky bit needed to be removed.
“Do you want me to go get the ladder?” Lucille asked as she hung one of the last bulbs. It was made of delicate glass, and one of her favorites, because it was in a patchwork red-and-silver design with delicate gold lacing between the rows. She pressed her lips to it for good luck, a personal superstition, and plopped it onto a strong-looking branch.
Marnie gazed up at the top. “Later. I’m hungry right now.”
They ordered carryout and sat on the couch. Lucille balanced her box of beef and snow peapods on her lap, scooping some rice out of the container set on the cushion between them.
“Can you believe we got the tree for half off?” She asked Marnie, hoping to strike up some sort of conversation.
Marnie stiffened. Lucille could feel her body seize up next to hers. “Yeah. That was strange.”
“I thought it was nice.”
“Well, maybe she’s doing it for everybody this year.”
“It’s still nice,” Lucille replied.
“I guess so.”
She glanced over. Marnie had quit eating. She set her food on the ground and rose into a stretch. “Could you clean up, Luce? I’m going to go take a shower.”
Lucille nodded, lowering her eyes. “Sure. Want to watch a movie afterward?”
“We’ll see. I’m awfully tired.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Marnie bent over to brush a kiss onto her forehead. “Thanks, Luce. See you in the morning.”
Lucille felt her own lack of adequate air rush over her, derived from a source more psychological than Marnie’s. As she walked away, she found herself wishing she hadn’t let her sister pretend she didn’t know why Mrs. McHaven at the tree farm had given them theirs half off. She wished Marie would just accept her kindness for what it was. But no--for Marnie, any act of reaching out was pity. And Marnie did not accept pity. She deserved it, though.
Lucille squeezed her eyes and saw her sister’s wan face with unnerving clarity. She was so sad.
Lucille was past knowing how to help her.
December 25, 2003
Marnie’s boyfriend had the kind of hair you saw in fifties advertisements, and a Crest Toothpaste smile. Lucille couldn’t stop staring. He wore a sweater that was so soft Lucille seized the opportunity when he sat down after dinner and curled up on his lap, burying her face in the warmth. She dozed off there, lying on his chest, her stomach full of food and her heart perversely content.
When she awoke, she was lying on the couch by herself. The sky had grown dimmer, and the tree lights sent darts of color all across the wide ceiling. She lay there and stared for a moment. She could hear the clatter of dishes in the kitchen--Marnie and the Boyfriend cleaning up, undoubtedly--and again, she felt happiness. It didn’t seem right, not after what they had lost just a few short weeks before.
That hollowness crept into her throat, springing water into her eyes. She tried to swallow it away, but she couldn’t; it was just there. She opened her mouth and a choked, quiet sob emerged. Her body curled instinctively into the large throw pillow lying alongside her, and she hugged it close and hoped it would stem her tears.
Then she heard it, in the kitchen. Loud and ringing and boisterous. Laughter. Marnie’s. She hadn’t heard it in such a long time. All her attempts at humor had been futile, and anyway, it wasn’t very likely that what a six-year-old found funny a twenty-six-year-old would, too.
It ebbed the pain some. Her grip on the pillow relaxed. She heard the boyfriends--Beau’s--laughter come to life beneath Marnie’s, and the sound of it together was almost musical.
Lucille decided then that she liked him.
Marnie still hadn’t cut the top off the tree.
It was driving Lucille nuts, every time she had to look at it. She wasn’t a detail-oriented person so this was, indisputably, a product of tradition. She could feel the arms of their little tree Angel beckoning to her every time she passed the hall closet, but her consideration for Marnie trumped all temptation.
She wasn’t ready. Lucille could tell, whenever any mention of the tree was made, even one completely unrelated to the eyesore. Her eyes got all hazy and she clammed up, refusing to offer even a casual comment. It was going on a year in April, and yet she was just as bad. Maybe worse.
It scared Lucille, truthfully. Living with Marnie was difficult, and as break grew nearer, she worried about what would transpire over it. What would happen on the day, for instance? The actual day of Christmas? It was suspended above their heads, a glaring uncertainty that felt like the only feeling it could guarantee was sadness.
School was okay. It was almost over, anyway, and so Lucille did the assignments without much inspiration. She kept her work textbook-ready, which wasn’t perhaps the best tactic to gain credibility at her private school, but she wasn’t particularly concerned with her teachers’ perceptions of her.
Yvonne Black threw a Holiday Party at her house. Lucille put on one of her long-sleeved black dresses and showed up with a saran-wrap covered plate of cookies. Yvonne had Jace Fischer manning the door, and he nodded politely at Lucille when he let her in.
The party was being held in Yvonne’s tastefully decorated living room. Lucille set her plate down on a long, narrow table full of mostly untouched food and joined a group of girls by a bay window that overlooked the landscaped front lawn. Yvonne was yapping away to anyone desperate enough to listen to her. From where she stood, Lucille could just make out the conversation.
“And so my Mom volunteered to host it for the PTA, and because it’s through the school, we had to call it a Holiday party, instead of a Christmas party, even though everyone knows that’s what it is. I mean, ridiculous, right? Who cares if we offend some Jewish kid? They shouldn’t come, then.”
The girl listening had the mentally-disturbed look of a hostage. She kept fidgeting, her eyes straining toward the food. Lucille happened to know she was Jewish. “That’s crazy. Yeah. I’m--I’m starving, though. So I should...yeah.”
Yvonne shrugged. “Help yourself. Just don’t eat anything the guys brought. I question its cleanliness.”
Lucille smiled privately to herself. She appreciated that kind of humor, actually. It was the sort that she and Marnie shared--had used to share--and she found it refreshing. Especially coming from Yvonne.
Speak of the devil, she noticed Lucille’s presence and started toward her, waving cordially. Lucille returned her greeting with a nod. Yvonne came up until she was right beside her and reached out to put a hand on her arm.
“Lucy!” She exclaimed. All her classmates called her that. A teacher had christened her with the nickname way back in kindergarten (either a big Beatles or I Love Lucy fan, Lucille guessed, because it certainly wasn't at her prompting), and it had stuck. “I’m so glad you made it! It wasn’t the same without you last year.”
Lucille blinked. She opened her mouth and closed it. Finally, she shrugged.
“Thank you, Yvonne. I appreciate it.”
“Of course! I mean it. And help yourself to anything,” she continued, ever the gracious host. Some new kids came through the archway into the rapidly crowding room, and she perked up even further. “Ooh! Solomon and Brittany are here! Guys! Hey!” Like that, she was gone.
She wasn’t trying to be insensitive, Lucille told herself. Yvonne was always oblivious. She’d been that way back in April, trying to be tactful around Lucille and only serving to make everything worse, and on countless occasions throughout the years. But still. It seemed so brazen to mention last year like it was nothing, like Lucille hadn’t come apart at the seams. Like she hadn’t left only Marnie to help her back on her feet, consequently never allowing Marnie a minute to try and make sense of the madness herself.
December 25, 2004
Beau brought his best friends, Susie and Dan, and they brought Annie and Aaron. Right away, Lucille liked them. They were fourteen months apart (eight-year-old Aaron had it down to the day), but they were close, like twins. They even looked similar. They all went upstairs to Lucille’s room and played veterinarian with her stuffed dogs, cats, seahorses, penguins, bears, unicorns, and ducks (they were an all-inclusive practice).
Downstairs, the clinking of wine glasses and bubbly chatter resounded. Marnie already knew Susie and Dan, apparently from double dates, but this was their first time meeting Lucille. When they sat down to eat dinner, they asked her lots of questions about her favorite colors and books and movies, and she thought offhandedly that they seemed like good parents.
Lucille spent a lot of time wishing she had parents. Then she would feel guilty. Even at eight, she knew wishing for that was the same as wishing Marnie away, and she wouldn’t trade her sister for anything. And anyway, having Beau was kind of like having a Dad, though not technically. He played dolls with her and helped with her meals and took her for ice cream cones after school, but Lucille was dying for him to be legally hers.
(A girl at school had just had her Mom get married at the courthouse and it was all she could talk about, so naturally it had rubbed off on Lucille).
They ate dinner and scrambled off their chairs to go play while the adults cleaned up. Later, as the grownups sat gossiping in the living room, Aaron discovered the cake on the counter and cut himself a jagged-edged piece. Then one for Lucille, and finally one for Annie, who protested being served last. They crowded onto a single stair and tore off pieces of the spicy-tasting dessert with their fingers, shoving them in their mouths.
When Marnie found them, she gasped and grabbed the plates away. Lucille stood at the foot of the stairs, watching as she frantically told Susie and Dan what had happened. Beau laughed in shock. Marnie shot him with a withering glare and he clamped his hand down on his mouth.
“It’s just a little bourbon,” Susie said good-naturedly, as she slipped the half-eaten plates from Marnie’s iron grip. “It won’t hurt them.”
“What kind of a mother am I?” Marnie asked woefully, plopping onto the couch beside Beau. He tugged her into his lap and kissed her head.
“You’re not,” he said gently, and Marnie closed her eyes.
“I miss her,” she whispered.
“I know,” Beau said.
Lucille coughed to keep from crying. All the adults looked at her.
“What’s bourbon?” She posed after a pause, and everybody laughed.
Marnie drank two glasses of wine at dinner. They’d ordered from the Italian place downtown: family-style lasagna, of which there would certainly be leftovers that would sit in the fridge until they grew some kind of mold and had to be thrown away. Marnie hadn’t stopped ordering for more, as though there’d be a third person to eat all the extra. She always got two pizzas, extra containers of chinese, more lasanga than they’d ever eat.
“Do you remember that time I ate cake with bourbon and you freaked out?” Lucille said, sipping her ice water. Marnie topped off the plum-colored liquid her glass with a focused intensity and raised it to her lips.
“Mm,” she said vaguely, past the flow of wine.
“Is that a yes?”
“Yes.” Her hand was white around the stem.
“It was probably only a little,” Lucille pointed out. “I mean, it’s not like the whole cake was made of bourbon. It was probably a fourth-cup or something.”
“I know that.” Marnie spinned the glass around on the table. “I mean, I knew that.”
Lucille glanced into the living room, where the three was just visible. “When are you going to cut that top off?”
“I dunno,” she said with a sigh. “Soon.”
“Do you want me to do it?”
“No,” she snapped tersely. “I said I’d do it. I will.”
“Okay. Sorry I offered.” Lucille picked off a wilted piece of spinach. That was another thing: she and Marnie both hated spinach lasagna, and yet she kept ordering it, because—
Marnie had started to rub her forehead. She glanced up at Lucille from beneath her lightly made-up eyes and pushed her plate aside. “I have a company dinner to go to tomorrow. You can order a pizza.”
Lucille wrinkled her nose. “I’ve had pizza twice this week.”
“Well, then Chinese.”
“We had that Monday.”
“Then Indian. I don’t know.” Marnie shrugged. “Get whatever you want. Invite a friend.”
“I’d rather just cook, honestly,” Lucille stated. “Can’t I cook?”
“I said whatever.” Marnie downed the last of her glass. She’d barely eaten any food to blanket the effect of the wine. As she stood from the table, she sloshed the remnants of the bottle into her glass. “I have some advertising strategies to review, so I’ll be upstairs. Holler if you need me.”
She turned and strode out of the room, leaving Lucille to clean up her plate. She hated seeing that nearly-untouched piece of lasagna sitting there, even if it was the spinach kind. She reached over and grabbed the plate, sliding the food onto her own. She took a bite, fully intending to eat it. But she wasn’t hungry, and the spinach really was awful, so she spit it out into her napkin. Then she threw it all in the trash.
Even the leftovers.
December 25, 2005
Lucille went into Beau’s and Marnie’s room and got in bed with them, burying her tiny frame beneath their mound of covers. They were both cold-blooded people, and the thermostat upstairs was always turned up way too hot. Underneath the covers, it was toasty, so much so that Lucille’s underarms started to dampen.
“It’s Christmas,” she announced into Marnie’s ear, and then Beau’s. “It’s Christmas.”
He didn’t open his eyes. “I don’t think it is.”
“Lucille,” Marnie said flatly, also refusing to open hers. “You’re delusional. You’re sleepwalking. Go back to bed. This is all a terrible dream.”
Lucille poked Marnie hard in the arm. She swatted her hand away.
“Beau,” she pleaded. He rolled over and patted Marnie’s head.
“Come on, Marnie. You know you’re dying to see what Santa brought you, too.”
“Shut up,” she giggled, but she was grinning. “Okay. Fine.”
“YES!” Lucille jumped up, leaping up and down. “Come on, come on!”
It was six-thirty in the morning. She hurled herself down the steps and came to a stop in the living room. There were a couple dozen gifts, large and small and then impossibly small (none of which nine-year-old Lucille hoped were for her), spilling out from beneath the tree. The glittering tree lights cast them in a mesmerizing glow. She dropped to her knees beside the mound and began sorting them into piles.
There were a couple for Aaron and Annie, one for Susie and one for Dan. “Are they coming today?” She asked Marnie as she leaned over her shoulder, cradling a cup of strong tea in her hands. Marnie was not a coffee drinker. She pushed her long brown hair off her forehead and nodded.
“Yay!” So far, Lucille had seen Aaron and Annie seven times that year. They’d come over for Beau’s birthday in March, Marnie’s in June, fourth of July, and Labor Day. They’d gone over there for Aaron and Annie’s September and November birthdays, and once for a movie night--no special occasion needed. Lucille really liked them. Annie was a firecracker and Aaron was equally as bossy, but kind of nice in the areas where his sister failed. They balanced out Lucille’s unyielding kindness really well.
“Hey, look here,” Beau said, materializing on her other side. He reached over and plucked one of the small presents with his name on it. “It says it’s from Marnie. Who’s that?”
He was always making dumb jokes like that. Lucille rolled her eyes.
“You know who that is!”
“Do I, though?”
Marnie relaxed into a chair. “If not, we’re all in trouble.”
Lucille tossed her one of the boxes that was vaguely clothes-shaped. Those, she also hated to get. “Here, Marnie. I think this is yours.”
“It says your name on it, Lucille,” she replied. “Right there. In huge letters.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be a snob.”
“I’m not. I just like the fun gifts.”
“Clothes are fun!”
“Then here.” Lucille searched out a box that seemed like it would carry such a gift, one with Marnie’s actual name on it this time, and handed it to her. “Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you,” Marnie said shortly, ripping it open. “Aw, Beau!” She lifted out a pink sweater. “Oh my goodness! It’s beautiful!”
Lucille wrinkled her nose and grabbed the largest box. “Can I open it?”
“Sure.” Marnie had gone over to kiss Beau. She put her hand on the back of his neck and pulled his lips to hers. Lucille pretended to gag and tore into the gift. A dollhouse emerged.
“Yes!” Lucille cheered. “I got it, Marnie! Beau, look!”
He pulled away from Marnie to assess Lucille’s gift. “Whoa. You must have been good this year, Luce.”
“I was,” she agreed. “I didn’t even have one negative thought.”
They continued to unwrap their bounty, each exclaiming gratefully in turn over their gift, no matter how small (except for clothes; even for the cute socks with the dogs on them, Lucille could not muster up excitement).
When there were only a few gifts left to unveil, Marnie slipped into the kitchen to make fresh cups of tea for her and Beau. He watched her leave, then leaned over to grab one of the more ominously wrapped gifts--it was lumpy, almost like something had been folded in tissue paper and then tucked in the snowman-patterned wrapping. He tentatively placed it on Marnie’s seat, then reached for another for himself.
He found Lucille staring at him.
“What’s that?” She asked. Beau smiled secretively.
“Don’t say anything,” he whispered, just as Marnie returned. She passed him his mug and sat down, right on top of the gift. Lucille burst out laughing at her perplexed expression as she began digging underneath her.
“What the…” she trailed off, pulling it out. “What’s this?”
Beau shrugged. “A little something.”
Marnie’s eyes sparkled as she flipped up the corner of the wrapping. “Did you get me that necklace I saw at Macy’s?”
He lifted his shoulders and let them drop. “Maybe.”
Marnie squealed appreciately. Lucille saw she was right when the first layer of paper came off--it was wrapped in tissue. Marnie unearthed it even further. A little velvet box appeared.
“This is awfully small for the necklace,” Marnie said, suddenly breathless.
Christmas Break. Lucille walked out out of the school doors and didn’t feel even a nudge of her usual freedom. She shouldered her backpack and made it to the end of the sidewalk before the incessant honking started.
She scanned the parking lot to find a familiar car idling ahead--it was Dan and Susie’s, with Aaron behind the wheel and Annie in the passenger seat. A smile broke across Lucille’s face as she started forward, waving with unbridled excitement.
“What are you doing here?” She asked as she reached Annie’s window, which was rolled down.
Annie reached out an arm to hug her. “Why does it matter? Get in.”
Lucille did. She dumped her backpack on the floor and buckled in, sliding over into the middle seats, even though it only had a lap seatbelt, so she could see both of their profiles. Annie had her brown hair pulled up and off her face, held back with multiple bobby pins and hair ties. She was one of those effortless beauties who never needed makeup, and her face was a tan, sparsely-freckled blank slate.
Aaron had the same warm complexion as her, but his hair was much shorter. They both had ridiculously long lashes, though. At age thirteen, Lucille had spent much of her time envious of that feature, until she realized how ridiculous it was to lust after a boy’s assets.
“Why are you here?” She questioned again, as Aaron pulled away from the curb.
Annie flipped a stray piece of hair over her shoulder. “The logistics don’t matter.”
“Did Marnie call you?”
“She did.” Lucille stared up at the ceiling. “She can’t handle me. I bet she said, ‘I need an evening to myself.’”
“She really didn’t,” Aaron piped up, and Lucille believed him. “We just haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Yeah,” Annie said. “You didn’t even come to my birthday.” She twisted around in her seat to give Lucille an accusatory look. “What’s up with that?”
“Sorry. I have a gift for you.”
“Like that makes up for it. It’s practically a sympathy gift.”
“No it’s not. I spent forever picking it out.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t show. So that negates the consideration.”
“Annie…” Aaron warned. “You’re being abrasive.”
Annie rolled down her window. “I can be abrasive if I want to.”
“Yes, but you’re being unfair.”
“You’re being too passive. Hold the girl accountable.”
“She’s had a tough year.”
“And so she’s allowed to forget her friends?”
This banter was typical for Annie and Aaron. Lucille tuned them out and stared up at the sky as it flashed past. The clouds, she imagined, housed all the people in heaven. They were watching her, this very minute, on earth. That was a comfort.
“I miss you,” she whispered, and her lips quivered. “I miss you both.”
She didn’t just miss them. She missed the parts of herself and Marnie that they’d taken with them. The innocence that could never be recovered. The first loss knocked them down, but Beau made it recoverable. They were never the same, but he helped them back on their feet.
The second hadn’t swept them off their feet. It had torn them apart.
Aaron saw she was crying. “Lucille? Are you okay?”
Annie stopped babbling. She turned around, wide-eyed. She contorted her arm so she could rest her hand on Lucille’s knee.
“Luce. It’s okay. We’re here.”
She pressed her hands to her face. Annie unbuckled her seatbelt and crawled into the backseat with her, disregarding the police officer driving three cars behind them. Aaron let out a groan.
“Annie, you just got me a ticket.”
She wrapped her arms around Lucille and rested her head on her shoulder, ignoring her brother. “We’re here for you. We’re here.” Lucille started to sob. She couldn’t help it. She sniffled into Annie’s pretty cashmere sweater, too upset to be embarrassed.
The police car came up beside them. Aaron stared straight ahead, his hands tensed around the steering wheel. Lucille met the officer’s eyes briefly. He didn’t look very old.
He accelerated and let them go.
December 25, 2006
They carried grocery sacks of presents into the hospital waiting room. They had to get it cleared for them to all go in together. If Beau wasn’t well enough, they could get him sick.
“Sorry, guys,” the nurse apologized as she came in. “Doctor Matthews said only one.”
“This one,” Dan said right away, pointing to Lucille. Susie guided her forward, passing her the two heaping bags of gifts.
“Here honey,” she said, patting her back. “Take these and tell him we said Merry Christmas. We’ll be here.”
Marnie was already in the room. She had spent the night there. A tree was set up on a small table by the bathroom. Lucille set the presents there and walked over to Beau.
“I haven’t opened anything,” she said solemnly, taking his hand.
His smile was brilliant. “Not even one?”
She shook her head. Her chin trembled.
“Oh, come here,” he said, pulling her close. “I’ll be fine, Luce-Goose. It’s just a little bump in the road.”
Lucille pressed her head to his chest. She could hear wheezing. He had his oxygen in.
“Do you know I love you?” She said into his arm.
“Do you know I love you?”
There was a rustling behind them. It was Marnie with the presents.
“Let’s open these, then,” she said thickly, setting them down. They spilled onto the bed. Beau patted the spot beside him, and Lucille obliged.
“I already got a pretty awesome gift last year,” Marnie rambled, rifling through their bounty. “But I guess maybe somebody could top if if I got...I don’t know...new car keys?”
Beau coughed out a laugh. “Yeah. Right. Let’s pretend our wedding didn’t cost us ten-thousand dollars.”
“That’s cheap!” Marnie protested shrilly.
“In Bill Gates’ world, maybe.”
“Oh, shut up.” Marnie waved him away. “Hey, look, Luce. It’s for you.”
Lucille squeezed his hand. He squeezed back. They opened presents.
Marnie had used to cook a long time ago, before everything happened. Then she took the advertisement job in May, and everything got busy, and all the sudden she didn’t have any more leisurely evenings to spend at the stove, Lucille by her side, faithfully chopping vegetables and seasoning everything with a heavy hand.
Tonight they were eating at a restaurant, which had also manifested into a rarity. Lucille wasn’t really hungry though. Christmas was a week away and, despite herself, her body was consumed with anticipation. She hadn’t asked for much this year, the biggest thing being an iPhone, and she was hoping she might get it.
Plus, she was going out shopping later this week with Aaron and Annie. The day they’d picked her up, they’d gone and got an early dinner and watched two movies at the theater. She hadn’t got home until late, and Marnie had casually asked her where she’d been. Then she’d retreated to her room for the night.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Marnie asked, gesturing to Lucille’s plate with her fork.
She nodded and took a bite, just to placate her. “Yeah. I’m just excited.”
Lucille stared at her, stupefied. “Christmas. Aren’t you?”
Marnie paused. Her eyes flickered up in disbelief. “Not particularly.”
“What? Why not?”
She appeared aghast. “Lucille. Do you really have to ask that?”
She clamped her mouth shut. A few seconds scraped by. Lucille ate another tasteless forkful of fish. Marnie rolled her shoulders back a few times and massaged her neck.
“Luce?” She said tentatively. “I’m sorry. It’s been weird.”
This was the closest they’d come to talking about it. If she said the wrong thing...
“I understand,” she returned slowly. “It has been hard. Nothing’s right without—”
Marnie cut her off with a sharp lash of her fork through the air. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”
Her tone left no room for argument. Lucille retreated yet again into her meal.
“So when do you want to do the shopping?” She began after a while of silent eating.
“For what?” Marnie’s phone had buzzed. She took it out and replied to a text.
“What party?” Marnie wetted her lips. She set the phone down on the table and gave Lucille her full attention, which caused her to falter a bit.
“The one--the one we always have, Marnie. At Christmas.”
“Luce, we’re not going to be able to have that this year.”
Lucille had felt uneasy, as soon as this conversation had begun, and now she understood why. She had felt it, somehow, in her gut. All the happy days had flown the coop. Even Christmas couldn’t save them.
“But what about Susie and Dan?” She asked, the names gushing from her lips in a frantic stream. “And Aaron and Annie? And Art and Judy? Cameron and Claire? And Monique?” All the people that had been attending their customary Christmas party for at least five years. Friends. Beau’s parents. Everyone who was left that still mattered.
“I don’t feel like hosting, Lucille,” Marnie said, already becoming impatient. “I work long hours and this year all I get off are three days. So no. I just want to spend them quietly.”
“That’s not it at all,” Lucille retorted angrily. “And we both know it.”
“Then what is it?” Marnie met her glare, daring her to speak the words.
Lucille couldn’t. She didn’t want to watch her sister’s face crumple like it had the morning she’d opened that diamond ring that sealed away all their fates. Why couldn't she and Beau have broken up? Why couldn’t he leave them alone? Maybe then they’d be okay right now. Hurt, certainly, but okay.
Marnie, never one to try and take the last word, didn’t say anything when Lucille didn’t reply. She didn’t smirk victoriously or say I told you so. She unfolded her napkin from her lap and stood up, excusing herself to the restroom. Lucille was all alone again.
December 25, 2007
“This year,” Marnie said to the roomful of people, “I am thankful for Beau’s health.” She raised her glass. Everybody else did, too. Beau smiled from his spot on the couch. He was bouncing his nephew, Cameron, on his knee and sitting between his parents. Lucille liked Judy and Art. They were an interesting pair--Judy was an interior designer and Art built model train sets. She’d seen them but a handful of times, yet they’d still brought her a Christmas present: one of Art’s model trains, painted by Judy to match her room.
Cameron was sweet if a bit spacey. Claire, Beau’s sister, had him conceived via a sperm donor, and the concept seemed obscenely scandalous to Lucille. She was friendly, though.
Aaron and Annie were sitting in the rocking chair, fighting over who warranted the most space. Susie was watching Marnie with shining eyes and Dan had his hand over his wife’s. Lucille sagged against Beau’s knee. It was late, and she was tired, and it was Christmas. Everything felt safe and warm and happy, in drastic comparison to last year.
Beau had begun coughing at the beginning of December and hadn’t stopped. His cystic fibrosis had flared up again, the doctor said, and he’d developed bronchitis. They kept him for a week to make sure it would be okay. He was, but he’d had to go on another pill afterward. Lucille knew this wasn’t a particularly good development. But at least he was here, sitting behind her. He was alive.
“And...I’m thankful…” Marnie paused; she was getting emotional. Beau stood up and went to stand beside her, patting the crown of Lucille’s head as he passed by. She felt the static from his hand as the hairs on her head rose, and it made her giggly.
“For you guys,” Beau finished, taking Marnie’s hand. He squeezed. They had been married a year in August. Lucille cradled her chin in her hands and watched them.
“We’re all so grateful,” she finished at last. Everybody clapped. Glasses were raised to lips. Cheers went up in the air around them. Lucille let out her own exuberant holler, and Aaron and Annie joined her, though theirs more resembled dog barks. It took a minute for Lucille to realize that they were baking, and so she started to, too, and Susie and Dan shushed them.
A bark came from across the room. It was a deep one, nothing that had come from the three. Lucille let out a laugh when she saw it was Beau. He barked again. Marnie gave him a shove on the shoulder, and he tickled her sides and barked while he nuzzled her cheek.
“Woof!” Aaron shouted. “Arf!” Annie started back up, and so did Lucille. Then Cameron, when he finally caught on. Claire let out her own bellow, elbowing her father until he did the same. It went on like this, until everyone was barking--Susie, Dan, and Marnie included.
“Are you trying to tell me we should get a dog?” She demanded when the noise finally died down. Beau shook his head vehemently.
“Yes!” Lucille leapt up. “Yes it is, Beau!”
“Ahh...no it’s not, Lucille!”
She sprung herself at him. He caught her, even though she was ten now and probably too big. He didn’t seem to care. She wrapped her arms around his neck and barked right into his face.
“Your breath smells,” he teased.
“You’re just smelling your own dog breath,” she sassed.
Marnie oohed at that. Beau twirled her around.
She was happy.
Marnie was insufferable.
She and Lucille didn’t talk for three days after their awkward dinner, the longest they’d ever gone without speaking to one another. Lucille wiled the time away on her laptop, web surfing. She filled out an E-vite to their doomed Christmas party and caught herself before she sent it twice. She messaged Annie to let her know there wouldn’t be one instead, then Aaron, and Dan and Susie.
Wednesday was the day before Christmas Eve. The few presents Lucille ordered had arrived. She took them up to her room and wrapped them. There were two for Marnie, one apiece for Aaron and Annie, then a shared one for Susie and Dan. Maybe she’d just invite them over for dinner on Christmas, she decided. Marnie hadn't explicitly said they couldn’t have company. She’d keep it really low key.
Lucille toted the presents downstairs and put them under the Christmas tree. They looked lonely, all there by themselves. One, two, three, four, five. She remembered back when there had been so many they could hardly fit. It wasn’t the presents she missed so much, but the thing they’d represented.
She bent over and scooped the last three back up, one-by-one. Dan, Susie, Aaron and Annie weren’t coming. Their gifts didn’t need to be there. She went back upstairs, leaving Marnie’s two lonely gifts there. Each with a line of silver ribbon trailing down the side, one might say they almost looked like they were crying.
December 25, 2008
They met in the hospital, in September of 2003.
Marnie was there visiting her mother, and she ran into Beau at the vending machines. He was discharged that morning, hanging around while he waited for his Mom to come get him after picking up his medicine (she wouldn’t let him go with her, reasoning that if he made any venture into the outside world he could get sick and end up right back where he started).
Marnie’d been buying a package of Hostess Doughnuts. Beau was next to her, at the drinks machine. He’d run out of change.
“People talk about gas prices going up,” he said as he deposited a borrowed quarter from her into the change slot, “but I say they’ve inflated the cost of vending machine goods.”
“They seem pretty consistent to me,” Marnie replied. She was tired. She had dark circles beneath her eyes. Her mother was getting worse. Little Lucille had no idea. She was so tired.
“Hey, are you okay?” Beau asked, as she listed against the vending machine, fatigued.
“Yeah,” she said hoarsely. “It’s been a long couple of days. My blood sugar’s...probably low.”
“Have you eaten?”
Marnie shook her head. “I’m fine.”
“When did you last eat?”
“Last night. But—”
Beau reached out and grabbed the package of doughnuts from her like it was nothing, not odd at all for a stranger to do. “Then save these for dessert. Let me buy you lunch in the cafeteria.”
Marnie frowned. “You don’t have money.”
He patted his pockets. “I have a credit card. Most vending machines don’t take those.”
They stared at each other a minute. Marnie liked the way one side of his mouth quirked up further than the other when he smiled. Beau liked how tiny Marnie’s hands were.
“Fine.” She said. “Five minutes.”
“You’ll be thanking me later,” he said, as they started toward the cafeteria. “It’s Beef Manhattan day.”
They told Lucille this story for the first time that Christmas. She was grinning ear-to-ear when they finished.
“That sounds like a fairytale, guys,” she lamented. “You should write a book.”
“Right, that’d be a regular bestseller,” Marnie said. “My Story: How I Met My Boyfriend, In The Hospital Because He Was Sick and My Mother Had Lung Cancer.”
Lucille had never heard her joke so flippantly about their Mom. “Marnie!”
“What?” Marnie turned her eyes toward the tree. “It’s true.”
Beau was silent. Marnie stretched.
“I’ve got to get dressed. Susie and Dan are going to be here in an hour.” She shuffled from the room.
Lucille picked through the art set she’d received, casting anxious glances up at Beau. “Is everything okay?” She finally asked, allowing enough time to pass for Marnie to be out of earshot.
“Yeah.” Beau nodded. “She’s just a little upset.”
“Well…” he glanced over at Lucille. “We got some bad news yesterday.”
A panic had set in. Lucille brought her lips together. Was Beau sick again? She demanded to know, but he only shook his head, and she could tell by the sincerity of his expression that he was being honest.
“Then what?” She pressed. “Why is Marnie upset?”
“It's something personal.”
“Now you have to,” she whined, scooting closer to him, disregarding her art set. “Please?”
“It’s nothing,” he said, scratching at a stain on his pajama pants. “Nothing at all.”
Lucille leaned back on her knees. She could tell it wasn’t nothing. His smile had begun to go stale, though, and that was the worst kind to get from Beau. So she dropped it.
“Hey, I have a question.”
Lucille and Annie were sitting in Annie’s kitchen, making cards at the breakfast table. Annie was armed with construction paper, glitter, and an Elmer’s Gluestick. Lucille had opted for elegant scrapbooking paper and calligraphy pens. She liked things to be done well. There was, however, a certain charm that Lucille couldn't deny to the three lopsided snowflake cards Annie had crafted.
“How come Marnie and Beau never had kids?”
Lucille was startled by this bluntness. How could Annie say his name so easily, as if it took nothing out of her? It probably doesn’t, Lucille realized. She went back to clipping miniature ornaments for her tree card. She was going to take some pine leaves off her tree at home (the one Aaron and Annie had was fake), so it was scented.
“Um...I don’t know,” Lucille said vaguely, although she did know. Beau’s Cystic Fibrosis had rendered him infertile. He and Marnie couldn’t have kids, and they never had the resources to adopt. She picture what a little Beau would look like toddling around. He'd probably have Fifties Advertisement Hair and a Crest Toothpaste smile.
She almost cried, but she didn’t, because it was Christmas Eve. She was spending the day here, and then going home tonight, and tomorrow would be Christmas. There wasn’t any time for tears in between.
Five presents had joined hers beneath the tree, making Lucille feel like her offerings were a bit scrappy. So she was going to go out tonight and grab a couple more for Marnie, just to even things out a bit. Maybe a scarf and some nail polish. That’s all she’d come up with, so far.
“What do you think?” She asked, changing the subject. Annie admired her card.
“You’re so good at this stuff. How do you do it?”
Lucille shrugged. What little she remembered of her mother, she remembered in snippets, and almost every scene was set in some sort of craft area: she and her mother, making homemade ornaments; she and her mother, fashioning placemats; she and her mother, painting a birdhouse.
That felt a little too private to share, though--even with Annie--so she didn’t. She evened out a lopsided branch and set it aside to give to Marnie in the morning.
December 25, 2009
Marnie got her new car.
She let Lucille drive it, even though she was way too young. They all crowded into the front seat and took it out to the country. It wasn’t actually technically a new car, but it was one she’d been eyeing for awhile: a really neat, violet car from the sixties. How Beau had come by the funds to buy it, she would never know.
Lucille was a little too short to reach the pedals, so she sat on Beau’s lap and he did it for her. She could barely wedge her legs beneath the wheel when she was sitting on top of him, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable. They drove a straight line down the tree-lined road with the windows rolled all the way down, even though it was freezing outside. The snow would fall later that night, but for right now, the ground was dry.
“Now I see why race car drivers love this!” Lucille said, urging Beau to press down a little more on the gas. The spedometer edged up to twenty-five.
Marnie reached over and ticked Lucille’s back. She squirmed and accidentally jerked the wheel a little bit. The car only moved a little, but she let out a yelp.
“Distracted driving!” Beau shouted, to diffuse the situation. Soon they were all in stitches, and they had to pull over.
Lucille woke up alone on Christmas morning, with no overly-warm bed to crawl into. For the first time in her life, she rolled over and pulled the covers up, all the way to her chin, instead of throwing herself out of bed and down the hall to where Marnie slept. She closed her eyes.
She woke again at seven-thirty, probably the latest she’d ever gotten up on Christmas, and couldn’t fall back asleep. She sat up in bed and pushed the hair out of her eyes, opening her mouth wide in a yawn. She grabbed a sweatshirt from her dresser and slipped it on. She took the stairs slowly, not three at a time.
Marnie was already up, sitting by the tree in her usual spot and sipping a cup of tea. Lucille sat down on the couch and studied the collection of gifts. It had been added to overnight, a couple more here and there. She could see them labeled TO: LUCILLE, FROM: SANTA in Marnie’s composed block handwriting.
Lucille scoffed beneath her breath. Marnie seemed to come to.
“Oh, hey.” She took a drink of the hot tea and tipped her head toward the presents. “Looks like Santa came.”
“Santa for sure.” Lucille reached for one. “Ready to start unwrapping?”
“I’ll take mine in a minute. Just...open that one.”
“Which one, Santa?”
Marnie waved her off. “That one. The tiny one.”
She did. It was a cute necklace she’d admired while they were in the mall a couple months ago, back-to-school shopping. She smiled in a reserved way and measured the weight of the little clover charm in her palm “Thank you. Now you.”
Marnie protested, but Lucille forced her first gift on her: an all-glass tea kettle, which people proclaimed to be revolutionary. Marnie thanked her enthusiastically, but Lucille could her excitement was forged.
They continued in such a fashion until all the presents were to be had. Lucille got her iPhone.
“I love it!” She cheered, hugging it to her chest. “Marnie, thank you.” She could hardly speak past her disbelief. Just the fact that her sister had listened…
“I’m glad.” And she really did look happy, if not a bit uncertain around the edges of her mouth. She stood up, tugging down the bottom of her too-large sweatshirt. “Thanks, Luce. I love my presents.”
“Of course.” She paused to beam at her sister, overcome with love for her. “Marnie, I know—”
She turned away. “It’s all right. Let’s not get mushy.”
“I just wanted to tell you—”
She glanced up at the Christmas tree, where the Angel was still absent. Marnie’s eyes followed hers and then darted away shamefully. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“Look, I don’t want to see it.”
“The tree topper?”
“Yes. The tree topper.”
Lucille knew, but all her frustration had built over the past month of friction, since that forsaken tree had come to live with them.
She asked her anyway. “Why?”
Marnie opened her mouth.
December 25, 2009
“I miss the star.”
Lucille stared morosely up at their new tree-topper. I had been bothering her since December first, when they always decorated their house. Beau was a big proponent of everything Christmas--he was the kind that went all out, stringing lights for hours and readjusting the placement of their multiple (probably too many) Santa statues until they were just right.
Marnie gave her a shove. “Leave him alone about it already.”
“I miss the tree,” Lucille sang.
“Here.” Beau tossed her another present. “Do something productive.”
“Opening presents is productive?” Marnie inserted.
“She’s forced it to be.”
Lucille ignored him. She glanced back up at the tree. There was nothing technically wrong with the Angel--it had been in Beau’s family for years and years, and his mother had given it to him at Thanksgiving. It was just, well, kind of plain. It didn’t light up like their star. It was made of cloth in various shades of tan and its stitched-on smile was lopsided. It didn’t fit with their other decor at all.
“Do you insist on the Angel?” Lucille reiterated.
She leaned over until her chin was almost touching the ground. She felt Beau’s hand on her back. He gave her one pat, two.
“What are you doing?” She snapped, annoyed.
“Petting our new cat. What should we name her, Marnie?”
“Grinch?” Marnie suggested.
“Nah. Too tame.”
Marnie opened her mouth. Lucille let out an exasperated shriek. She was nearly a teenager. Her hormones were all over the place. Beau started to laugh.
“Do you know what today is?” Marnie asked, finally.
It caught Lucille off guard. “Um, Christmas. Duh.”
“No. It’s—” She paused, her words stolen by some resurfacing memory. Her eyes were shining with unshed tears. “It’s ten years ago exactly that we spent our first Christmas with Beau.”
Lucille hadn’t heard her speak his name since April, since the phone calls.
“I’m calling to let you know that Beau passed away last night. His showing is tomorrow at the Redwood funeral home. His burial will be the following day at Umbridge Cemetery.” She’d read this script from cue cards.
Her voice was strong, emotionless, but her hands were shaking. Lucille still had that image burned into memory.
She rubbed her eyes to clear it. “I didn’t think about that.”
“Right.” Marnie kept her chin high, but her eyes were covered in a sheen of tears. Lucille wondered if she could even see. “Of course you didn’t, Lucille. All you can think about is you.”
Her mouth opened in indignation. That felt like the furthest thing from the truth that Marnie could accuse. All Lucille thought about was her sister and Beau--night and day, night and day, in an endless, cumbersome loop. Was Marnie eating enough? Oh, Beau would’ve loved to see that movie. Was Marnie drinking more than usual? She wished Beau could have been there to see her get honor roll again. Oh, would Marnie ever be happy again? How could she, if Lucille wasn’t?
“That,” Lucille said, her voice stronger than she’d ever heard it, “is not true.”
Marnie narrowed her eyes, the same face she’d given Lucille several times over the years when she was gearing up to fight, but right before any irreversible words tumbled from her perturbed mouth, she turned away.
“What?” Lucille challenged, when nothing was said. “What? Say it, Marnie. Just say it so we can get it over with.”
Marnie was defeated. Her head dropped and her pale hands twisted together. The determination in her expression faded until Lucille could’ve sworn she’d imagined it.
“I don’t want to fight,” she told her softly. “It’s Christmas.”
Lucille wanted to fight. She was angry, so angry, that this had been allowed to go on for so long.
Eventually, Marnie was going to have to face the fact that she was hiding from her pain. Lucille ached, in every part of her body sometimes, but at least she could feel it. Marnie kept pushing it away, and Lucille feared the day when it won out and enveloped her, all of it at once.
“Fine,” Lucille said crisply. “You’re right.”
She went and sat down by the tree, pulling her phone to her. She wasn’t even excited about that anyway. It was just a phone, afterall. It wouldn’t replace what she had lost.
December 25, 2010
Aaron’s hair was longer than the last time she’d seen him.
Lucille couldn’t stop staring. His eyelashes were full and thick, she noticed, and he had the same freckles that Annie did. When he went up to the food table to refill his plate, she did too, even though she’d already had thirds of everything and her stomach was bursting.
“So what’d you get for Christmas?” Aaron asked when he saw her.
“Oh, you know.” She busied herself making a cheese-and-cracker sandwich. “Your regular stuff. Art supplies. A journal. Earrings.” She cleared her throat, feeling painfully self-aware. “How about you?”
“Pretty much all the same stuff as you, actually,” he quipped. Lucille smiled reflexively.
“Oh, yeah? Did you get little dangly hearts, too?” She pointed to her lobes, from which the present hung.
“Yes, but I forgot to wear them.”
Somebody gagged behind them. Lucille turned around. It was Annie.
“Disgusting,” she said, elbowing her way between them to get at the sweet potato casserole. “Stop flirting.”
“We’re not,” Aaron said instantly. “I was joking.”
Lucille was aghast. She couldn’t even find the words to protest, she was so floored. Annie moved effortlessly around the table, collecting various goodies, acting as if she hadn’t just suggested her brother and best friend liked each other.
“Do you guys like green bean casserole?” She asked, scooping some onto her plate. “Because I think it’s repulsive, but I can’t stop eating it.”
“Then don’t eat it.”
“Aaron, I said…”
Lucille stole away to her room upstairs, where she could be safe in her thoughts and feelings. Was she that obvious? Man, did she even like Aaron? She’d only just started thinking that she liked the way his face looked back in September, but since then he popped into her head nearly every day.
He probably didn’t like her, Lucille thought, lying facedown on her bed. She was too plain and too dumpy. She didn’t even have a chest yet, for pete’s sake. And she was too nice. Annie was always telling her that.
An hour passed, and then two. Lucille heard the front door open and close. She was missing dessert, most definitely, but she’d just get a plate later. She felt too sorry for herself to show her face.
She dozed off at a little past six, and woke when she felt the bed dip down beside her. She opened her heavy eyes to find Beau there. He had a small smile on his face.
“Hey. They just left.”
Lucille rolled over onto her back and studied the ceiling. “Good.”
“Oh. So you just decided to hibernate because it sounded fun?”
“All right.” He was thirty-three. He still looked just as young as the day Lucille had first met him. His hair had grown out some, and he didn’t part it nearly as meticulously--sometimes she’d wondered if that first visit was him putting his best foot forward, meeting Marnie’s sister. She liked the way his hair hung down, now. He seemed so much freer. Lucille couldn’t lie to him.
“I think I like Aaron,” she admitted.
Beau hardly looked surprised. “He probably likes you, too.”
“No he doesn’t,” Lucille huffed.
“Because. I’m me, and he’s him. He probably thinks of me like a sister.”
“Well,” Beau started. He stopped. “He asked about you three times.”
“I told him you weren’t feeling well.”
“I’m guessing Annie did something?”
“She said we were flirting.”
"Hm." Beau took a palpable breath. “Maybe she was right.”
“Lucille, yes. You are. And you’re great.” He reached out to smooth back her straight hair and unleashed his full grin. “Stop being so down on yourself.”
She seized his hand and squeezed it. “I love you, Beau.”
His smile faltered. His eyes seemed a little shiny.
“Hey. You too.”
She sat up and hugged him.
“More than you could ever know,” he continued into her hair.
The morning crawled by. Lucille took all her new things upstairs and put them away, in drawers and in closets, until no evidence of Christmas morning remained. It could have been any day in December, with the decorated tree and the festive lights, but it certainly wasn’t Christmas.
The wrapping paper was shoved deep into the trashcan. Lucille did the dishes and went outside to shovel snow off the sidewalk. Beau had used to do it, before--always on Christmas morning before the big group of family came up the sidewalk. Lucille took a breath and thought about that family, breathing heavily. She hadn’t seen Claire and Cameron since the funeral, and she imagined he must be so big by now.
Art and Judy had come over once or twice since then, to check on Marnie and Lucille, but it had been even a few months since then. Sometimes Judy emailed her, and Lucille always answered, but she knew that Marnie didn’t. Judy had told her as much in their last conversation.
By the way, does Marnie still use her email? I keep sending her letters and she’s not answering.
That had stung. Lucille understood Marnie retreating into herself, but there was no sense in freezing out Judy. She was a sweet lady who had spent a lot of hours with them over the years. She was like a grandmother to Lucille.
The thought of not seeing them today was almost too much to bear. Lucille went back to work to distract her mind from mulling it over too much. She came inside a little after ten, cold and red-cheeked, and stripped down to her long underwear she’d put on beneath the snow pants.
She gazed outside. Snow was still falling, in spontaneous drifts, but the sidewalk was clean and ready for people. She sank down onto their couch and rested her chin on the back. It was going to be a lonely day.
Their home phone lay on the table a few feet away. Lucille stared at it. It was daring her to do something that would make Marnie livid. No, she couldn’t. Part of her didn’t feel ready, either.
She reached for it.
December 25, 2011
Lucille was too big to climb into the hospital bed with Beau, but she tried anyway. He had an oxygen mask on, not the one that went up his nose that he was used to wearing, and she could hear a crackling in his chest.
The infection had started right before Thanksgiving and worsened. They’d gone to the doctor’s in December to get it treated, but the antibiotics weren’t working. Lucille, needing closeness, wrapped her arms around Beau. His arm came around to hug her shoulders.
“Do you need anything?” She asked.
He shook his head. He didn’t have enough breath to speak.
Their presents sat, unopened, on the tray beside them. Lucille reached for one with Beau’s name on it and handed it to him. The mask was all fogged up, but his cheeks lifted, and she knew he was smiling.
Together, they opened all their presents, leaving Marnie’s for her to unwrap whenever she got there. She was taking a nap at home. She’d been with Beau in the hospital for the past week and a half. Lucille was staying with Dan and Susie again. She’d been given Annie’s bedroom.
Lucille wished everything was normal. She was scared like never before. Beau had never been this sick that she could remember, and not ever for so long. He just wasn’t healing, and he couldn’t breathe on his own. She knew he must be frightened, too, probably more than her, but he didn’t show it.
“Beau,” Lucille said suddenly, feeling the innate need to hear from him.
He looked at her. His eyes were somber.
“Promise me you won’t die,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Please don’t die.”
She hated herself for even thinking it was a possibility, but she’d been doing her research. People with cystic fibrosis didn’t live very long lives. Not by most standards. He was sick this time, really sick, and he wasn’t getting better. She knew he couldn’t really vow anything to her, but she wanted him to. So badly.
He reached up and lifted the mask away. She could hear a hiss coming from his lips.
“I’m not going to die,” he said slowly, and let the mask snap back on. He was turning a bit blue in the face. Lucille leaned across him and pressed the nurse CALL button. He swallowed.
She wanted to believe him.
Lucille knocked on Marnie’s door.
“Yes?” She croaked. Her voice sounded raw. Lucille felt a start at the fact that Marnie had been crying.
“Can I come in?”
A beat of silence. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
Lucille creaked the door open. Marnie lay in bed, the covers around her, the curtains pulled. It was unbearably hot. She raised her head.
Lucille drew a breath, deciding to just say it. “I did something.”
Marnie sat up, deservedly apprehensive. “What?”
“I called them.”
She was breathing loudly. “Called who?”
Certainly she knew. But Lucille said it anyway. “Dan and Susie. Art and Judy. Claire.” Marnie was silent. “They’ll be here at two.”
Lucille and Marnie stared at each other. Lucille wrung her hands.
“I told you!” Marnie exploded. Lucille jumped. “I told you we were not going to have Christmas this year.”
“Call them all back! Right right!” Marnie jabbed her finger at the door. “Get out and go tell them you made a mistake.”
“I can’t say that.”
“Then say I’m sick! Say whatever you like, Lucille, but they are not coming over.”
Lucille scrambled for a way to calm her down. She couldn’t come up with anything but the truth. “I just wanted things to be the same…”
“Things will never be the same,” Marnie screeched, louder than Lucille had ever heard her yell in her whole life. “Don’t you get that?”
Lucille was mad. Really mad. It had been eight months, and every day was difficult, but Marnie wasn’t getting better. She wasn’t even going to try.
Marnie recoiled. “Excuse me?”
“No, I am not going to call them!” Lucille shouted. “I am not going to pretend they don’t exist. I am not going to have a bad Christmas because Beau’s dead!”
Marnie’s breath hitched in her throat. “How can you expect to have a good one?”
“I’m going to try! He would want us to!”
“Fine, then,” Marnie said evenly. “I’ll just call them myself.”
Lucille wanted to slap her. She wanted to grab her by her hair and shake her and force her to get out of her own idiot head. But she couldn’t. Marnie was already pulling out her cell phone, and Lucille couldn’t bear to watch her hopeful plans come crashing down.
She turned and pounded down the stairs, into the living room. She stopped. The tree was still touching the top of the ceiling, the angel absent. She hated this day, she hated her sister, she hated herself, and she hated that tree.
Lucille sprinted into the kitchen and grabbed one of the knives from the silverware drawer. She held it in her fist as she stormed back into the dining room, grabbed one of their chairs, and dragged it next to the tree. She had no idea where the clipping shears were--they hadn’t been used since last season, at least--so she would just have to make do. She climbed up onto the chair and reached for the top of the tree. Her hand just barely brushed the base of the spindly part that needed to be cut off. She held the knife against it and started sawing.
The tree shedded as she worked, showering tangy pine needles. Her arms ached. It was tedious work, but it was coming off.
Finally, the knife broke into air. Lucille dropped it on the floor from where she stood, knowing their carpet would blanket its fall. She held the two-foot branch in her hand, staring at it. She didn’t feel nearly as relieved as she’d hoped she would.
She took it outside, not bothering to put on a coat. The wind was frigid. She held the branch in her hand, feeling the bark scratch her fingers. She dropped it in the snow.
December 25, 2012
Everybody had been over.
Marnie and Lucille cleaned up the kitchen while Beau watched It’s A Wonderful Life on the couch. He’d offered to help, but he’d been moving so much today, going from person-to-person, that even with the oxygen tank he was perpetually out of breath.
They worked efficiently, tossing paper plates and loading dishes and scraping the last bits of food into airtight containers. Lucille started to dry one of the platters that couldn’t be put through the dishwasher.
“So next year, I was thinking,” she started. Marnie worked next to her, wiping off the countertops. “We should have a Christmas Eve party instead, and do, like a gift exchange—”
“Lucille,” Marnie interrupted. “Let’s not think about next year just yet.”
She glanced toward the living room. “We should just focus on the now, you know? That’s the best way to live when…” She broke off abruptly. Lucille furrowed her eyebrows.
Marnie didn’t answer. “Hey, I can get the rest. Why don’t you go sit with Beau while I finish this?”
Lucille wanted to hear her finish what she was going to say, but she decided not to push it. This was Christmas, after all.
She went into the living room and sank down next to Beau. He reached out and patted her hand.
“Me,” she said, leaning her head on his shoulder.
“Well, aren’t I lucky?” He was wheezing. Lucille could hear it. She closed her eyes and pretended she was six years old again, sitting on Beau’s lap. He still smelled the same.
Chronic respiratory failure. The doctor had sung the words nearly a year ago, as they sat in Beau’s room after Christmas. It could be managed, but it was hard. His lungs had developed too many infections over the years, and they didn’t want to work.
Lucille didn’t know how long he had left. Nobody did. That’s what Marnie was going to say, there in the kitchen. She didn’t want to plan next year because Beau might not be there.
That was a surreal thought. It didn’t feel like it could ever be true. He was there right now, right beside her, so alive. She didn’t ever want him to leave her.
She thought of the promise he’d made last year. He’d kept it so far. She hoped he would, for years and years to come. She hoped so hard her throat hurt.
Keeping her eyes closed, she reached for his hand. If he didn’t, she wouldn’t know what she would do. Or, oh God, what Marnie would do. They were not themselves without him.
“Thank you for loving me,” Lucille whispered into his shoulder, overwhelmed with gratitude. “Thank you for making Marnie laugh.”
He kissed her head. “Luce, you don’t even know. I’m the lucky one.”
It hardly seemed like it, but she knew he thought it was true.
She fell asleep.
Lucille climbed the stairs. She opened the closet.
The shoebox was still there. With the Angel.
Marnie came into the hall.
“What are you doing?” She hissed. Her eyes were red.
Lucille reached for the shoebox. “I’m putting the Angel on.”
“No you’re not.” Marnie came forward and snatched it out of her hands. “You can’t even put it on. It’s too tall.”
“I already took care of it.”
They were locked in a staredown. Lucille caved first.
“What do you think gives you the right?” Marnie asked, in foreboding tones. “You’re going against everything I’ve told you. You’re making today a giant battle.”
“You’re making today miserable,” Lucille protested. “I hate it. I hate everything about this day.”
“So do I.”
“No, you do for different reasons.” Her voice cracked. A tear betrayed her. “You hate that Beau’s gone and you don't think anything can be the same. But it can. You just don’t want it to be.”
“Lucille.” Marnie put her hands to her forehead. “It can’t.”
“Yes it can. He would want us to keep having our Christmases.”
“Well, I was his wife.”
“And I was his daughter.”
“No you weren’t,” Marnie countered quickly.
Lucille's vision was blurry. "Yes I was, Marnie."
Marnie was fighting off tears. Lucille could tell. She stared at a place over her shoulder as her chin quivered threateningly. Lucille drew in a shuddery breath.
“We don’t have to put the Angel up,” she said at last, thickly, “but let me see it. Please.”
Marnie shook her head. She clutched it to her chest, and a sob wrenched its way out of her.
“I miss him so much,” she managed. "I can't stand it."
Lucille stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her sister. She felt so small and fragile in Lucille's arms. Her whole body trembled.
“It wasn’t fair,” Marnie choked. She let the shoebox drop. It thudded to the ground between them. "He shouldn't have died."
They grasped onto each other and held tight, and they cried.
“I’m sorry,” Marnie apologized through her tears. “I’m so sorry, Luce. It’s been so hard.”
“I know.” Lucille buried her head in her shoulder, the way she’d used to with Beau. She felt six years old again. “It’s been terrible.”
“I just need more time,” Marnie continued. “I need more time before I can see everybody. Please understand.”
Lucille pulled back. In a lot of ways, she was stronger than Marnie. But then, Marnie had lost something that Lucille still hadn’t even known yet. Love. And she couldn't begin to imagine how that must have hurt.
“I understand,” she consented, and she did.
Marnie nodded and wiped away the tears with her sleeve. “We’ll do stuff today, I promise. And next year...maybe next year I’ll be ready. I can't pretend today, though, Lucille.”
Lucille wasn’t going to hold her to it. But she could hope.
"Okay," she whispered. She rubbed her face. They were silent, looking at anything but each other. Now that they'd actually gone and opened up to each other, things felt inexplicably amiss.
The box was still on the ground, a welcome diversion. Lucille bent over to pick it up. She hadn’t realized, in the heat of the moment, but it felt heavier than it should.
“Does this box have something else in it?” Lucille asked, holding it out to Marnie.
Marnie grabbed onto it. “I don’t think so. I remember putting the Angel in there.” She sniffed.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I did it myself."
She glanced up, wide-eyed. "Can I look?"
"Please?" Lucille begged.
"Fine. Yes." She drew a deep breath. "Open it."
Lucille lifted the top and breathed in sharply.
There were presents.
Four wrapped little parcels, tucked in the corners that the angel didn’t take up. Marnie stared over her shoulder in surprise.
Do not open until Christmas Day, was scrawled on each one. Then: For Marnie, for Lucille, for Marnie, for Lucille. In Beau’s handwriting.
“He got us presents,” Lucille murmured.
Marnie reached for one. She held it in her hand. There was a little give to it.
“He did." Marnie wiped tears off her cheeks. She was smiling through them.
"He still wanted to be a part of our Christmas," Lucille marveled.
Marnie cradled her gifts, almost like she was afraid. "Should we open them?"
They carried the box downstairs and sat down beside the tree. Lucille could almost imagine Beau leaning over her shoulder like he always did, watching carefully to see how they reacted.
“Which ones first?”
“The smallest,” Marnie said, grabbing them. They were both extra careful not to tear the wrapping as she unfolded the gifts.
Lucille laughed. Hers was that exact same necklace Marnie had given her. Beau had known she would like it, even before Lucille herself did.
“Look,” she said, holding it up.
Marnie was holding a necklace, too. hers was a delicate gold heart on a chain. Her eyes were watery again.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She said, dangling it in the air for closer inspection.
Lucille nodded. She reached for it and Marnie handed it over. With careful movements, she fastened it onto her sister’s neck. It settled just below her collarbone. Then Lucille put hers on. She would wear both, she decided, and maybe paint one clover a different color so she’d know.
Marnie let out whoosh of air. “I almost don’t want to open the others.”
Lucille grabbed hers. “We should. He wanted us to.”
Lucille got a Polaroid camera. On the inside of the paper, Beau had written better than an iPhone. Lucille grinned at that and held it in her lap to admire it.
Across from her, Marnie started to laugh. Lucille whipped her head up to find her sister holding a booklet. 1,000 of the Funniest Jokes on the Planet.
“Listen to this,” Marnie said, flipping to the first page. She started to tell the joke, grinning from ear-to-ear. Lucille heard part of it, but she was watching her sister. Smiling again. Because of Beau.
Lucille closed her eyes and listened to the lilt of her sisters voice. She felt the weight of the Polaroid in her lap and the cool of the charm against her chest.
Wherever he was, Beau was laughing.