“But why would Jeremy’s boss do such a thing?” Mom shook her head.
“Oh, it’s simple,” Claire said as she pinned up another section of the garland. “Eat and be eaten, you know,” she gave a significant nod, her eyebrows arched high.
“But will he really be able to find a new position?” Mom insisted.
“Don’t worry about that,” Claire responded merrily. Her swollen belly jiggled to and fro as she bustled with some ribbons. “Jeremy will be snatched up in no time.”
“But, dear,” Mom said with concern, “it’s got to be before—”
“Stop worrying, Mom!” Claire laughed. “I’m sure we’ll just have time to get hired—somewhere—and find a new house—someplace—before little Isla joins us.”
Mom’s lips were still a thin line, but she didn’t voice any more doubts.
“Angie!” Claire set down the figurines she was arranging on the mantel and hurried over. “You’ve got it all wrong!”
“What are you talking about?” Angie countered.
“You’re supposed to do the advent counting down, not up.” Claire pulled the tole-painted pieces from Angie’s hand and began rearranging them the other way.
“But this way you just think of the date,” Angie protested.
Claire ignored her. “There,” she said, stepping back and smiling, the advent numbers beautifully arranged counting down. “Now you can turn them to today.” Claire waddled back to the box of decorations to select her next prey.
“Christmas Nazi,” Angie muttered. It had always been like this, ever since they were little children. Claire was always taking charge, always arranging, always bossing, and setting up the Christmas decorations topped it all. Now that Claire was married, and Angie still was not, it was even worse. “Jeremy and I like to do this” and “Jeremy and I like it like that” had droned on and on, day and night, since Christmas vacation had begun.
“Angie! Can you help me with the star?” Claire called from the living room. Yes, leave it to Angie, the giant, to put the star on the Christmas tree and answer Claire’s every beck and call.
There were only two years between them, but the way Claire treated Angie made it seem like ten. “Now you can do this, Angie? Now you can do that?” Who did she think she was—a second mom or something?
Angie perched the star on top of the tree. She cleared the paper and bubble wrap strewn in the wake of Claire, the decorating diva. Then Angie pulled the empty boxes into the garage and set them back in the rafters. All the while, Claire was jabbering away to Mom about her plans for the baby room, when she and Jeremy got a new house, that is. Nobody said a word to Angie. It was like she was some mute servant hovering in and out, assisting when needed, as invisible as her six-foot height could possibly be.
“Angie, can you lift this?” Claire asked, pointing to a sack of flour in the kitchen.
“Now, Angie,” Claire said when the flour was on the counter, “you spray the pans, but I’ll roll out the cookie dough. You always get it uneven, you know.”
Angie tried not to grind her teeth. Apparently she had stumbled into a bake shop and had volunteered her services.
“I know these are your favorite, Mom!” Claire called cheerfully as she pulled the ball of sugar cookie dough from the refrigerator. As if Angie hadn’t been the one to mix the dough the day before.
“Now, Mom,” Claire said. “We’ll just bake these up and frost them after dinner. Then Angie can go delivering, just like the good old days.”
Angie kept her gaze on the countertop, cutting each cookie deliberately and violently while trying to suppress the memory of how she had always been the one to pull their little red wagon around the neighborhood with the Christmas goodies while little Claire pranced ahead singing Christmas carols.
“No, no,” Claire said, bustling over to Angie and tearing up the tree-shaped cookie forms. “We wanted angels, right Mom?” Claire rolled Angie’s trees back into a ball. “There, start again. Here’s the angel.”
Angie bit her lip and punched at the ball of dough. Now there was a cookie dictator in the house.
“Honestly, Mom,” Claire smiled, returning to her cup of cocoa at the table. “I’m glad that I came home early to help out. What a state the house would be in without my touch!”
“Stop!” Angie jumped to her feet and put her hand over her ears. Sticky crumbs of dough fell along her cheek, and there were probably hand marks of flour in her hair, but she didn’t care. “Just quit it, Claire, all right? I’m right here, you know. You don’t have to talk like I can’t hear.”
It was like someone had pressed the mute button, the kitchen was so silent. Claire’s eyebrows were nearly to her hairline, and Mom looked like she was about to cry.
“Look,” Angie stammered, already ashamed of her outburst, “I’m sorry, it’s just--” she grabbed a towel off the counter and brushed the flour off her hands, stalling as she tried to find the words to express what she felt.
“It’s okay,” Claire said, shrugging her shoulders and turning back to the cookie cutters. “That time of the month, huh? We all get it, Angie. No big deal.”
Angie threw down the towel and stomped out of the room. Her coat was hanging on the rack by the door. She ripped it from its hook and tore out of the house, the sleigh bells on the doorknob jingling behind her.
The winter air cut at her flushed cheeks, but between a fast walk and a fuming temper, Angie wasn’t cold. She couldn’t believe that Claire would make a PMS crack at her. It was the lowest of the low.
The sun was just about to set, and after a few blocks Angie knew she wouldn’t be able to stay out much longer. Mom always worried if Angie or Claire was out alone in the dark, and Angie still didn’t like to make Mom worry.
Up just up the street, Mrs. Miller was bringing a set of poinsettias back into her house. “Merry Christmas!” Mrs. Miller called, and Angie gave a wave. As angry as she had been a few minutes ago, Angie liked Mrs. Miller. She was a little deaf and talked to her cats, but she always said hello and used to let Angie and Claire pick her apples every fall when they were little girls.
“How’s your mother, Angie?” Mrs. Miller called.
“Great,” Angie said. “The doctor says the transplant is taking really well.”
“Wonderful!” Mrs. Miller’s smile lit her face up to her sponge curlers. “I like to give ’em a little sun,” Mrs. Miller explained as she picked up the red leafy plants and gave them a shake. “Keeps ’em nice longer.”
Angie smiled as she said good night and watched Mrs. Miller’s carpet slippers shuffle back into her glowing house.
It was dinner time by now, but Angie was far from hungry and even farther from wanting to confront her family. Sure enough, Dad’s car was in the driveway and the lights were on in the dining room. Angie snuck in through the side door and upstairs to her room.
The gentle rumble of dinner table conversation filtered up through the vents. Maybe they wouldn’t notice Angie was home before they left to pick up Jeremy, who was finishing up his last days of work, from the airport. Angie plopped on her bed and pulled a novel from the stack she had picked out for Christmas break. After the fifth attempt of reading a page and getting nothing out of it, she dropped the book on her bedside table and went to the bathroom for a drink.
It was the same bathroom that Claire and Angie had shared all growing up. At first it was nostalgic to see all Claire’s cosmetics lined along the bathroom counter once more, but the stray tissues and bits of packaging that Claire dropped everywhere were getting pretty annoying. It only took a few days for Angie to remember how much she hated her sister’s carelessness, probably Claire’s one imperfection.
As Angie took her cup from the corner of the counter to fill it with water, she noticed Claire’s ring tray glittering with its delicate charges. The rings were probably there for safe keeping from the cookie dough. Angie looked at the ring tray for minute, and then poked her head out into the hall. The sounds of clinking forks and talking were still floating up the stairs. Angie returned to the bathroom, shut the door, and picked up the rings.
The dainty circlets of smooth, elegant, white gold glinted in the soft bathroom light. Angie glided the rings onto the tip of her finger, the three diamonds sparkling like exquisite stars, but the rings slid no further. Claire’s hands, like her whole figure, were willowy and thin, while Angie had always felt like she had too many limbs.
Angie returned the rings to the tray and looked in the mirror. She was angry at herself now for being so selfish. Claire meant well, she always had. Yes, she still was a bossy older sister, but she had taken care of Angie all her life. It was Claire who had known what to say to everyone when Mom was sick with kidney disease. It was Claire who always helped Mom while Angie locked her dreaded fears in her heart along with her voice.
A pounding on the staircase made Angie jump. She ran the sink and splashed her face with water so Claire would know the bathroom was occupied. The hand towel had been left on the floor, thanks to Cluttery Claire, so Angie bent down to the cupboard under the sink to grab a clean, new one. Her hand hit something hard and she heard the crinkle of wrapping paper. Reaching farther into the cupboard, Angie pulled out a box that was almost a perfect cube and about the size of a tissue box. It was wrapped in the prettiest shimmering gold paper and tied with a bright, silky red bow. “To Angie” the top of the handmade gift tag read.
Angie gave the box a little shake. She heard something heavy clunk around among its tissue-paper padding. Her shake had turned the tag over, and she noticed a longer note on the backside: “Dear Angie, I wanted to get you something really special for Christmas this year. I know I’ve been pretty bad at giving you things I would want—like makeup and spa packages—in the past, but this year I really wanted you to know that I care about you, not just what you might think I want you to be, if that makes sense. I’m so proud of how well you’re doing in school. It’s not what I would, or did, want to study, but I’m glad you’re figuring out your thing. I hope this will help. Thanks for being my little sister and putting up with me for all these years. Love, Claire.”
The click of the light switch and the shuffling sounds of a pregnant lady’s waddle in the next room made Angie’s heart beat fast. She flipped on the sink again, shoved the package back into its hiding place, turned off the sink, and fled to her room. A minute later, through the double doors, she heard Claire’s muffled knock to see if Angie was still in the bathroom. It was early, but Angie flipped off her light and dived into her bed. Maybe no one would bother her if they thought she was asleep.
Half an hour later, the back door slammed, the garage rolled open, and Angie heard the family van pull out the driveway. When she was sure they were far enough down the street, Angie sat up and flipped on her bedside lamp. She leaned her back against the wall and spun a decorative pillow up and down into the air: swish, plump, swish, plump.
It surprised Angie that she felt no curiosity about the gift. Claire had certainly written quite a lead-up to it, but it was what Claire had said about giving meaningful and wanted gifts that kept rolling through Angie’s mind. Most of Claire’s gifts Angie really hadn’t valued at all—she had always hated the perfumes, eye shadows, and nail polish that Claire gave her—but now, she felt kind of bad about her ingratitude.
It was the rings, Angie finally settled on, that had started the change. The particulars of Claire’s wedding—the zillion lists of décor, gourmet food, protocols, plans, and all the other trappings—still brought on nightmares. However, now that Claire and Jeremy had lived a new life together for a few years, Angie had to admit that those rings represented more than just the expensive white dress and perfect roses Claire had ordered. Angie thought of what Claire had said about Jeremy just that day—Claire’s faith, devotion, and loyalty to him—and it made Angie a little awed—and a little jealous--that Claire was such a good wife and so happy.
Angie slid off her bed and dug beneath it for her hidden stash of Christmas gifts. They were still unwrapped. Claire always said that Angie wrapped presents like a fifth grader—like they had been chewed up by a dog before they were placed under the tree. Shrugging the thought off, Angie pulled out her proposed gifts, one by one.
There was the CD of old favorites that Mom would probably cry over. Sure, Angie’s parents still had all the songs on vinyl record and liked them best that way, but the CDs would be useful in the car.
Angie took out the box of chocolate-dipped peppermint sticks for Dad. It was a running joke between Angie and him that this was all he ever wanted for Christmas. If he could count on her to get his favorite treat, he’d have a Merry Christmas no matter what. Angie smiled and put the peppermint aside.
Next she pulled out the Wii game she had bought for Jeremy. She was still figuring him out, but she thought he would like it. He and Claire had friends over a lot, and this party game was one of Angie’s favorites for group dates at school.
The last thing in the box was Angie’s gift for Claire: a wimpy bottle of lotion. It wasn’t even the on-brand that Claire liked, just the generic. Angie had picked it up without a thought, and picked up the cheap bottle thinking that with Jeremy being let go and all they’d have to learn to economize anyway.
Angie pushed the box of Christmas secrets away with her foot. The lotion tipped and rattled against the cardboard side. She was ashamed of her gift now after reading Claire’s heartfelt note. All this time, Angie had thought that Claire was the lame sister, the sister who didn’t listen, who didn’t care. Okay, Claire definitely had her faults, but her intentions were good. Maybe their broken relationship, which was getting rockier as the years passed, was Angie’s fault—Angie who wouldn’t speak her mind, Angie who didn’t communicate, Angie who had given up when Claire never had.
Angie reached into the cardboard box, grabbed the lotion, and tossed it into the trash can under her desk. After a minute, she thought better of that move, retrieved the lotion, and took it to the bathroom and added it to Claire’s line of cosmetics on the counter. Then she returned to her desk and switched on her computer.
Mom had been thinking of throwing a baby shower for Claire with all her old friends, the neighbors, and the church ladies that they had known their whole lives. Before, Angie had cringed at the idea of another party for Claire, but now she realized it was just what Claire needed—and what Angie needed to make up for all her sour sister moments. She cruised through several party supply sites and picked out invitations, decorations, and favors—all the ones she had heard Claire describe to Mom the week before. Angie printed the list. She could show it to Mom tomorrow. Maybe they could even make the shower a surprise.
Next she browsed Claire’s online baby registry. She picked out a few gifts that she knew would be really meaningful to Claire—one for the shower, one for Christmas, and one for the birth. She was taking stock in this baby after all. If she was going to compete with Jeremy’s sisters for favorite Auntie, she had better start right now.
Finally, Angie went downstairs and pulled the golf catalogue out of the trash in Dad’s den. Maybe it was time to give a little more in her other Christmas gifts too. This year peppermint sticks would just be part of the wrapping.
What I liked best: Loved it.
Publication ready: Needs a little tightening up, but overall, it was wonderful. I want this in the book.