It’s still dark out when Annie wakes. She didn’t mean to fall asleep. She meant to stay up all night, or at least long enough to hear reindeer hooves on the sloping roof of her house. The chimney is closest to her room—she eyeballed it Christmas Eve morning, just to make sure. If only she could’ve stayed awake. She imagines how the reindeer might have sounded. Little pitter-patters, like rain.
Her clock says five a.m., squarish numbers glowing in the dark. She sits up, keeping her puffy comforter close around her so the cool draft only hits her back, and peers out the window near the foot of her bed. It’s getting lighter, isn’t it? It’s not her imagination, the dark sky is starting to fade to silver-gray. Morning is here. It just needs time to catch its breath. Soon it’ll be here for real, and they’ll all be downstairs, her and Joel admiring the Christmas tree while Dad makes pancakes and Mom—
A soft knock comes at her door. Then Joel’s voice, hushed: “Annie?”
She scoots out of bed, the comforter wrapped around her like a princess cloak, her favorite stuffed lamb tucked in the crook of one arm. “Coming.”
Joel sits next to Annie at the top of the stairs. The staircase leads down into the dim grey shadow-light of too-early-for-Christmas-presents. Joel wishes it would hurry up and get lighter. Beside him, Annie stirs under her pink-striped comforter. “I wish we could go down now,” she says. “I want to see Santa!”
“He’s not there.” Joel wishes he’d brought his own comforter, with the baseballs and mitts on it. His bathrobe doesn’t feel warm enough, even though he can hear the bump of the furnace kicking on. “Santa starts at the North Pole, remember. He covers North America first. We’re pretty early on his route.” He tells himself this every year, to banish the sneaking dread he doesn’t dare confess to his little sister. She’d laugh if she knew he was scared of Santa Claus. No self-respecting twelve-year-old boy should even still believe in Santa, and most days this year, he didn’t…until he woke up this morning just before five, and heard the subtle little noises their old house always makes, and couldn’t shake the sudden conviction that the Jolly Old Elf was lurking around downstairs. Jolly. Hah. What’s jolly about a guy who knows what you’re doing every minute, and you can’t even spot him?
Santa is the spirit of giving. That’s what makes him real. The thought comes in his mother’s voice, clear and sweet and so vivid it’s almost audible. He huddles deeper into his bathrobe, tight around a cold empty feeling he doesn’t want to admit to. Annie holds out a corner of her comforter. “You can share my princess cloak,” she says.
“Thanks.” He drapes half the comforter over himself. Annie nestles in, like a puppy. Sadness washes over him, and he shuts his eyes tight. Annie shouldn’t see him cry. She’s only six. This Christmas, this first one After, will be hard enough for her. He’s her big brother. Mom asked him to look out for Annie, and he will. Right now, though, it feels like his little sister is looking out for him.
Annie leans against Joel, both of them wrapped up warm in her princess cloak. She can hear the house talking to itself, see the dimness downstairs ebbing like waves on the lakeshore in summer. Mom used to take them to the lake, Before. But now it’s After, and Mom is gone. The thought leaves a hole in Annie’s heart where Mom used to be. Sitting here now, with her big brother next to her trying hard not to cry, she has a glimmer of how—maybe—to help him out.
She nudges his shoulder. “Race you to our stockings in…what time is it?”
He swallows hard, opens his eyes, checks his watch. “Five-thirty.”
She screws up her face, trying to remember how long it is until six a.m., the earliest they’re allowed to go downstairs and start Christmas. “Half an hour?”
He looks at her, with a grin that’s almost like the one she remembers, even though his eyes are wet. “Sure, Annie Banannie. I’ll race you.”
“Don’t forget ‘on your mark, get set.’”
“I won’t.” He ruffles her hair. “I won’t forget anything. I promise.”
She finds his other hand beneath the comforter and slips her own into it. He squeezes and keeps hold. Together in the silence, they wait for Christmas Day to begin.
Cross-posted at The Write Room Blog (http://www.thewriteroomblog.com/?p=3574)