Chapter One: The First Noel
“Mom? Dad?” Justine called, pushing the door open with her suitcase and stepping inside.
It was pointless, of course. If they’d been home, they would have come to the door any one of the three times she’d hit the doorbell. Plus, they probably wouldn’t have had the door locked, nor would the house have been dark except for the lights twinkling beneath the gutters. She must have just missed them, she thought. Her mother had told her they were going to the candlelight service at church, but Justine had planned to get there before they left. Any other time, she would have made it; she should have known better than to expect any kind of traffic other than insane on Christmas Eve.
She was going to hear about that when they got home, no doubt. “Why didn’t you come home last week?” her mom would ask. “Your finals were done then! You had plenty of time!”
“It’s a candlelight service, ma,” she’d point out, rolling her eyes. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen 'em all.” Or, more likely, she’d just apologize. After all, her mother’s imaginary argument had a point. But after slogging her way through her first finals week at college, she just hadn’t been ready to plunge headfirst into her family’s Christmas celebrations. They took the holiday very seriously, and, from what her mother had told her, there had been hardly a day in the past week that hadn’t involved a party, or caroling, or looking at lights. There wasn’t anything wrong with all of that, but she preferred a different kind of party, the kind her parents would certainly not approve of, to reward herself for all the studying she’d been doing, crashing on the couch at one of her friends’ apartment. It had been a blast, though she was looking forward to sleeping in a real bed.
“Anyone?” she yelled up the stairs, one final attempt to find someone else to lug her things up to her room for her so she wouldn’t have to. She sighed into the expected silence and flipped open the locks on her suitcase, pulling out the presents inside, leaving them on the floor. There wasn’t anything too heavy among them, so it wouldn’t make much of a difference, but at least she wouldn’t have to carry them all back downstairs. Her suitcase itself wasn’t really that bad, but after driving all day, she didn’t especially feel like carrying it all the way upstairs.
She did anyway, though, tossing it onto her bed before sitting down beside it, looking around. She hadn’t been sure exactly what to expect, but it looked exactly the same as it had when she’d left, just a little cleaner. It was comforting, in a way, yet at the same time, disorienting. It was the first time she’d been home since starting college, and when she thought of her room now, it was her dorm that sprang to mind. Being back made her feel like she had gotten in a time machine.
She left her suitcase, still packed, on her bed and wandered over to her closet, which was still quite full, even though the one at school was nearly bursting at the seams. She flipped through the dresses and skirts she’d deemed unworthy of moving with her, at least for the time being, until she found her bathrobe. It was old, formerly dark blue, now faded to a blueish silver tint, and, most importantly, comfortable. She yanked it free of its hanger and made her way into the bathroom, taking a quick shower before slipping into it.
She fished her cell phone out of her pants pocket and checked it, ignoring the text she’d gotten from her mother, to see what time it was. Still early, relatively. If she really wanted to, she might even be able to make it to church, slip inside and surprise her mother - they were probably sitting in the very back pew, as usual. She couldn’t really say she did, though. And, besides, her hair was still pretty wet, so going outside, even just to run out to her car, didn’t exactly sound appealing, and neither did taking the time to dry her hair, and then get dressed in anything but her pajamas. She hadn’t been to sleep before 1:30 in months now, but she was pretty sure that, for the rest of her break, anyway, she definitely would be.
For the moment, however, she was going to go downstairs and sit on the couch by the Christmas tree. Maybe she’d break into her parents’ liquor cabinet, pour herself some wine. It wasn’t her drink of choice, normally, but it felt right for her situation. She put her phone into her pocket and pushed the bathroom door open with a yawn, stepping out, and almost directly into a girl. She was about thirteen or so, small and mousy, bespectacled, her already wide eyes magnified even further by the glass. Before Justine could process what had just happened, the girl smacked her with the umbrella she was holding, the tip banging against her shoulder blade. It didn’t exactly hurt, but it was quite startling.
“What the hell are you doing, Megan?” she demanded, grabbing the umbrella from the girl’s hands before she could hit her again.
“I-I thought you were a burglar…” the younger girl stammered, clearly still rattled.
“How many burglars do you know that take showers in the houses they rob?” Justine asked, rolling her eyes.
“Well, since I don’t know any burglars personally, none,” Megan answered with a sniff, picking an invisible piece of lint from her sweater. Justine sighed, gently pushing the girl away from the bathroom door so she could get by. She was a good kid, really, but that didn’t stop her from being annoying. For the longest time, until Justine’s parents had adopted her little sister, Maria, Megan had been the closest thing Justine had to a little sister.
Seeing that Megan was feeling sheepish about her overreaction, Justine decided not to ask what exactly she’d been planning on doing if she had found a burglar. She dropped the subject, other than a, “You call the police?”, changing to, “What are you doing here?” once she’d gotten a head shake.
“Maria isn’t feeling well,” Megan said. “So I’m watching her. I… umm… I fell asleep in the living room.”
“That’s all right,” Justine told her, patting her shoulder. “I won’t tell mom and dad.” The thought of Megan being old enough to babysit anybody still felt bizarre, even though she’d been doing it since before Justine had left for college, every now and then when Justine was busy on the same nights as her parents. She didn’t bother to ask why Megan wasn’t at the service - she’d decided earlier that year she was an athiest, and took pride in telling people all about it at the slightest provocation. She had an admittedly cute way of pushing her glasses up whenever she started to explain something, but that wasn’t worth hearing the speech yet again. “Well, I’m here now, so you can get on home if you want.”
She didn’t. Justine could tell by looking at her that she was bursting with questions about what college was like, and the world outside their dinky little town, but she really just wanted to be alone. “Why don’t we hang out later this week?” Justine asked diplomatically. “I know you don’t celebrate Christmas, but I’m sure mom and dad have the whole day planned out, so tomorrow doesn’t really work for me. The day after would probably be fine…”
“Oh, I still celebrate Christmas,” Megan corrected her. “You know, for the presents.”
“Of course,” Justine nodded. “Very shrewd. Look, how about I just call you? We can go to the mall or something, okay?”
“All right,” Megan said.
She looked disappointed, but it wasn’t enough that Justine was tempted to invite her to stay, though when she got halfway down the hall, Justine did call, “Wait!” She hurried up to the girl and handed her the umbrella. “Put that up for me, would you, doll?” she smiled down at her. “Merry Christmas, Meg!”
Deciding to give the girl a few minutes to get her stuff and get out, and to do her job as the big sister, she postponed her plans to go sit by the tree for a little longer, instead heading to Maria’s room. She pushed the door open just enough to peek inside, to see the toddler lying curled up in her bed, silhouetted by her night light. It really had been too long since she’d seen her, she realized, but what could she do about it? She was sure Maria would be happy to see her, yet if she wasn’t feeling well, it would be a bit selfish to wake her from her needed rest just to get a hug from her. Still, she found herself hoping, as she watched, that Maria would wake up on her own and see her there.
After a while of that not happening, Justine decided that was for the best, that it would be even better to save her reunion with her baby sister for Christmas morning. She reached in carefully and grabbed the doorknob, pulling it closed slowly before turning around to head for the staircase and her nice, quiet Christmas Eve, once again nearly running into somebody.
“I thought you were leaving, Megan,” she started to say, her mouth starting to work before her mind could process the image before her, before she could realize that the person standing there was certainly not Megan. It was a man, for one, and rather than her towering - though less than she used to, she’d been sad to discover - over, Justine was the shorter one of the two. He was definitely a large man, though not exactly fat, and he had a large, white beard. He was wearing a long coat, red fur, with a matching fur hat, and huge silver boots that made Justine wonder how he could have possibly snuck up on her. She lifted her hands quickly as he lifted his, with the huge walking stick in it, and he chuckled.
“There you are, vnuchka” he said, clapping a gloved hand on her shoulder. “Come, we have much work to do.”