A Carol of Mothers and Menorahs

by Mark Brazaitis

Becca Bishop missed her flight back to San Francisco and stayed in Pittsburgh, the last town on her Stealing Fire from the Sun tour, drinking merlot from a bottle she bought at a liquor store three blocks from her hotel at the edge of a neighborhood she knew she should have been terrified of. The next day, instead of boarding her flight to San Francisco (her bandmates were driving to California in a van), she rented a Ford Focus and soon found herself on the decrepit asphalt of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, heading toward Ohio and the town where she was born.

It was Christmas Eve.

Becca didn’t turn on the radio. She didn’t want to hear music, which would remind her of her music, which would remind her of her twelve-city tour. Her manager had booked 1000-seat venues, which had proved too large, sometimes by as much as three-fourths. Pittsburgh had been a better stop than most, however, because she had been re-booked from a 750-seat auditorium at the University of Pittsburgh to the Rex Theater, where she could see everyone in the place.

The three other members of her band had lost enthusiasm for the tour even before they’d left California—San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento had been the first four stops—and after a listless effort in Minneapolis, in which the opening act, a local band called Objects in the Mirror, received more enthusiastic applause than she did, she ceased giving pep talks to her bandmates and joined them in late-night drinking. She stopped writing postcards to Ariel, her best friend, a ritual she’d begun in better times, on better tours. She stopped writing new songs, which she used to do occasionally, sometimes with thrilling results, on the road. She thought she might be standing on the border of the blues and depression, and she didn’t know whether a return to her hometown would be a cure or a catapult to complete despair.

It was Christmas Eve.

After her mother left and never returned, and after her aunt likewise disappeared, Becca spent every Christmas with Ariel and her family. There was no Christmas tree, there were no stockings by the fireplace—Ariel’s family was Jewish, after all—but there was ritual: Thai food for Christmas Eve dinner (Sherman had no respectable Chinese restaurants, the usual providers, according to Ariel, of Jewish Christmas Eve fare) and, the next afternoon, a movie, which, by the time they were teenagers, was always an art-house film at the Hope Theater. Sometimes Christmas coincided with Hanukkah, and Ariel’s mother brought out a spare menorah, which became Becca’s menorah. Even the winter Ariel’s mother died of breast cancer, Ariel’s family had a gift for her.

Becca entered her hometown unconsciously, as if driving into a daydream. She was unaware of her surroundings until she crossed the Main Street Bridge and stopped at a red light next to the Book and Brew. She thought of finding a parking spot and going inside for coffee. But she kept driving until Main Street ended at the entrance to Ohio Eastern University’s downtown campus. She turned right and followed University Avenue out to the edge of town. She turned right again, then left, then right until she pulled into the trailer park where she used to live. It had a name now: Sunnyfield. Under the bleak winter sky, the trailers were the same dull colors Becca remembered. There were Christmas lights arranged around doorways and thrown across bushes, although because it wasn’t even three in the afternoon, they weren’t lit. The trailer park, Becca remembered, was at its happiest in summer, when her neighbors’ vegetable gardens grew bright with tomatoes and peppers and watermelons.

Becca parked in front of the trailer she used to own. If she closed her eyes, she could see it perfectly. But now it seemed far smaller than she remembered—and even more morose in color. The trailer’s only concession to Christmas was a plastic Santa Claus, perhaps two feet tall, planted to the side of the bottom step. Becca felt certain she had been happy here, at least sometimes, but no memory came to her.

“Becca?” she heard someone say. “Becca Bishop?” She looked behind her, at the trailer across the gravel road. Her former neighbors, Rusty and Suzie, had stepped outside. They were the same except paler, grayer. Rusty’s chest-length beard was far more salt than pepper; Suzie’s large breasts had fallen toward her ample belly.

After Becca said hello, they asked her how she was doing and why didn’t she have a tan. “I thought it was required in California,” Rusty said. Becca explained about being on the road recently, and Rusty said, “I’m only joking.”

When there was a pause in the conversation, Suzie nudged Rusty in the side and said, “Tell her.”

He glanced down at his wife and turned back to Becca. “I think I seen your mother.”

Becca smiled, thinking this was another of Rusty’s jokes. “It was the other day,” he continued, “early morning, before I was even up proper. I was in bed, and I looked under the blind to see what the weather was like, and I saw a woman at the door of your old place. This old place.” He pointed to the trailer. “I think she might have been knocking, but no one was home. The boy who lives here, he’s nice enough, and he must have a dozen girlfriends, if that’s what they are, but he isn’t here much. When she turned around, I thought, Becca Bishop is home! But it wasn’t you, and it wasn’t your aunt—this woman was older.”

“Are you sure, Rusty?” Becca asked. Her heart rate had suddenly doubled, maybe tripled. She had always told herself that if she saw her mother again, she would play it cool. But even the rumor of her mother’s return had set her heart speeding.

“Of course our bedroom window hasn’t been cleaned recently,” Rusty admitted. “It’s something I just haven’t gotten around to.”

“But you were sure,” Suzie said, looking up at him. “You shouted it! Woke me up!”

“I scrambled to put my clothes on,” Rusty said. “I wanted a word with her. I mean, here you’d lived by yourself since you were sixteen—you’d grown up by your wits, a girl without parents—and now you were a famous singer and your mother was suddenly showing her face.”

Rusty shook his head. “But when I finally managed with my clothes and opened the door, she was gone.”

Becca thought the woman could be related to the man who owned her old trailer. Perhaps it was his mother. Or maybe it was one of his girlfriends. Nevertheless, she asked again what the woman looked like. She asked what she was wearing. She asked what kind of car she’d been driving.

“Wouldn’t it be something if you found her on this trip,” Suzie said. “It would be a Christmas miracle.”

“Hush,” Rusty said. “Let’s not get hopes up.”

“Hush, hell,” Suzie said. “It could happen. Happy things do, you know.”

*

Becca drove to the Book and Brew, thinking coffee would help. But help with what, she wasn’t sure. She hadn’t come to Sherman hoping to find her mother. But if her mother was around, looking for her, Becca decided she better return the favor.

When Becca pictured her mother, the image she conjured was herself older and heavier but beautiful in a way she wasn’t. She pictured her neither smiling nor frowning, neither welcoming nor standoffish. Sometimes she imagined her mother living in whatever exotic or bland location she happened to read about in the newspaper or see on television: in Israel, in Iran, in a small, flooded town in Iowa. (She never imagined her father’s life in any detail; she’d never so much as seen a picture of him.)

In the Book and Brew, the owner, Tim Kovitch, was behind the counter. With his curly black hair and swimmer’s physique, he looked like a Greek statue. A few years earlier, he shucked off his perfect home life—beautiful wife, two gorgeous sons—because he fell in love with a woman he’d known in high school. Becca used to perform at the Book and Brew when she lived in Sherman, so she knew Tim well.

Today, after pouring her a coffee, he confessed to feeling like a guest in his sons’ lives. They were teenagers, difficult to connect with in the best of circumstances, impossible in only a couple of hours a week. On the other hand, he said, Anna, the woman from his past, the woman of his present, had had an art opening in Columbus a few weeks before and they were still buzzing from the excitement of it. “You understand—you’re an artist,” Tim said, and Becca said, “Sure,” although she always found the term pretentious. She considered herself a storyteller with a guitar.

Becca told Tim about her talk with Rusty and Suzie in Sunnyfield. “I’m sure there’s another explanation,” Becca said. “I haven’t seen my mother since I was eleven. I haven’t heard from her since I was twenty.”

“Well, wait,” Tim said. “What did he say she looks like?”

Becca told him, “Me. But older.”

“It might have been yesterday—no, I think the day before—when a woman came in here who reminded me of you. I’d never seen her before.”

Becca’s heartbeat revved up.

“She even had a similar haircut.” Tim paused. “I was upstairs, dusting the bookshelves. Anyway, she spent a lot of time in the self-help section.”

“Did you speak with her?”

“Now I wish I had.”

“What was she wearing?”

What Tim described wasn’t exactly the same as what Rusty described. But it was close. Besides, Rusty and Tim may have seen the woman on separate days—Becca never pined Rusty down on the specific date.

“Anything else about her I should know?” Becca asked.

“She had nice teeth—whiter than piano keys—like yours,” he said. “She did buy a book.”

“Which one?”

“It was the new P.D. James mystery. Hardback.”

“I love P.D. James!” Becca exclaimed. She drew in a breath to temper her hope. “And my mother always loved British mysteries. When she left, she left behind her entire Agatha Christie collection. I read every book.”

Becca thought, I wonder if she bought the book for me. I wonder if she had it in her hands when she came to my old trailer.

“Did she use a credit card?” Becca asked, her words rushing with hopefulness. “If she did, you’d have her name.”

Tim shook his head. “She used cash. I remember because I remarked on it. It was a $50 bill.”

Becca remembered her mother, home from waiting tables, work she did when she quit or was fired from better paying jobs, plopping down on the couch in the yellow ranch house where they used to live, counting the bills in her fist. “Look,” her mother said, her eyes (in memory, anyway) enormous, luminous, “it’s a $50 bill.” Becca couldn’t remember exactly what her mother said next. Did she say whoever had tipped her had made a mistake, leaving $50 instead of $5? Or did she say the tipper had been extraordinarily generous?

“Look,” Tim said, pointing to the tall windows. “Snow.”

Thick, damp flakes struck the window and, in the sunlight, which appeared suddenly, strikingly, they turned to shimmering water. “It’s a Christmas miracle,” he said and laughed.

Becca drank her coffee, which had grown tepid. She dumped sugar and two-percent milk into it, and it became a dessert drink.

“Would your mother be likely to spend $24 on a hardback book?” Tim asked her.

“Definitely,” Becca said, thinking of her own book-buying habits, how her impulsiveness used to defy what was in her bank account. Ever since the success of her first CD, she had been less inhibited about how she spent her money. Her days of relying mostly on libraries for her books were behind her. Or so she had thought. She pictured the empty seats on her lackluster tour.

“Well, you would know,” Tim said. Becca thought, No, I wouldn’t.

*

Leaving the Book and Brew, Becca wondered what she should do next. Should she draw a sketch of her mother based on how she projected herself to look twenty years from now and hang posters on every telephone pole in town?

The Christmas lights downtown, wrapped around lampposts, were on, which offset the sun’s disappearance. Most of the stores were closed, ceding last-minute shoppers to the two malls outside of town. Days of Wine and Roses, one of Sherman’s better restaurants, located in a renovated Victorian house, was open. Becca imagined her mother coming into the restaurant and sitting across from her, as if they had planned to meet. But when Becca imagined what she would say—“Hello, mother”—she was appalled by how awkward she would sound, how formal and stilted. Better, she thought, to start with a simple “hello.” Or perhaps even “hi.”

She laughed. “Hi” sounded even more ridiculous.

Becca imagined herself sitting silent, paralyzed, across from her mother as she contended with the emotional hurricane inside her. Roiled by joy, regret, nervousness, fear, and anger—an anger she had only ever expressed in her songs—she wouldn’t be able to start a conversation. She imagined her mother, confused and disappointed, leaving.

But wait, Becca would have said, we have so much to discuss. We have my entire life to discuss. She felt a longing so acute she wrapped her arms around her body, as if to keep it from breaking apart.

Becca realized she had walked the entire length of Main Street and was standing at the north end of the Main Street Bridge. There was a time when it was the state’s most popular suicide spot, although now the desperate and depressed had moved on to haunt other locations. Becca was about to turn around and walk back up Main Street, but she stopped as a black car—no, midnight blue, a Mustang, the exact model she owned—rumbled onto the south end of the bridge, heading her way. When the car was halfway across the bridge, Becca could see the driver, a dark-haired, pale woman—herself in twenty years. When the car was ten yards away, Becca felt her mouth open and her hope pour into the cold air: “Mom? Mom!”

The car rushed by her and climbed the hill past the post office. Becca raced after it, feeling both desperate and foolish. The car slowed slightly as the hill’s incline increased. There was a traffic light ahead at the intersection of Pine Street, and the car stopped. Becca broke into a sprint, the icy air stinging her lungs. She was perhaps a dozen yards from the Mustang when its right turn signal clicked on and it swerved around the corner.

When, huffing, Becca reached the intersection and stared down Pine Street, the car was gone. The snow, which had stopped falling soon after Becca left the Book and Brew, resumed, heavy flakes so quick to melt they might as well have been rain. Rusty hadn’t known the kind of car her mother—or her mother’s imposter—was driving. But he had said it was dark. As dark, perhaps, as the night sweeping down on her.

*

When Becca and Ariel fronted the No Exits in high school, they played Don’s Underground a dozen times. The last time Becca came here, there were old posters of the band hanging on the walls. But nothing adorned the walls now except glowing signs advertising Corona and Miller Lite. Tonight Don’s Underground hosted six middle-aged patrons— four at the bar, two in a booth. Becca thought about turning around and heading back to Interstate 77, where she could find a McDonald’s or Wendy’s, someplace familiar and anonymous. But after recognizing her, one of the middle-aged men left his barstool and approached.

Peter Marcello, the town’s sheriff (the title “police chief” was deemed too authoritarian by the city council in the 1960s), was handsome, with an olive complexion and a head shaved clean. His face was round but his nose cheekbones were angular and therefore tough looking. Becca used to see him sometimes in the trailer park where she lived, investigating a domestic disturbance or looking into a robbery. A neighbor of hers had once cultivated a marijuana garden on the roof of his trailer. Marcello, who at the time may have still been a police officer, hauled off every pot of pot in his cruiser. Becca’s neighbor was never arrested, so everyone figured Marcello kept the evidence.

“Welcome back, Becca Bishop,” Marcello said. “Let me buy you a drink.”

She smiled her acceptance and sat next to him at the bar. The bartender delivered a glass of red wine whose aromas included cherry, strawberry, and—Becca’s nose was sure—a hint of cheap tobacco.

Marcello asked her when she’d arrived, what she was doing in Sherman—“I know you don’t have a gig here,” he said, “if ‘gig’ is the correct word”—and what her life in California was like.

She told him about her tour, describing it in happy terms, and the psychology class on criminal minds she would be taking at San Francisco State beginning in January.

“Send me the syllabus,” Marcello said. “I’m sure I’d learn something.”

A second glass of wine appeared. She drank, the tobacco taste even more prominent. She asked how he was doing, and he told her life was good, which didn’t explain why he was in Don’s Underground on Christmas Eve. Marcello asked again, “What exactly are you doing back in town?”

She opened her mouth but realized she had no answer. She brought her wine glass to her lips and drank. “I think my mother might be in town,” she said.

He sipped his beer. It was a local brand; it looked darker than beer should. “This would be big news,” Marcello said. “Olivia Mae…Olivia Mae…damn, I’ve forgotten her last name.”

“Bishop,” Becca said.

“Bishop? No kidding. I thought she’d changed it.”

“She changed it back a few months before she left for good.”

“Olivia Mae Bishop.” Marcello shook his head. “I haven’t seen her.”

Becca told him what Randy and Tim saw. She didn’t tell him about chasing the Mustang.

“But neither of them bothered to ask her if she was your mother?” Marcello said.

Becca shook her head.

“So it’s a live mystery,” he said.

“Do you think there’s a chance it’s her?”

“Of course.” He frowned and shook his head. “But there’s a better chance it isn’t.”

Becca sighed. “I don’t even know why I care.”

“Because she’s your mother.”

“She quit being my mother when I was eleven.”

“Even so, it would require an iron heart to keep from wondering about her. And you couldn’t write the songs you do if you had an iron heart.”

Becca smiled. “I’m flattered, Sheriff. But if I gave you a quiz on my songs, would you pass it?”

“Try me.”

“You’re brave.”

“I’m a fan—and not just because you’re a hometown girl. I’d like your music if you were a stranger.” He tapped the bar, and the bartender brought him another black beer. “Would it help your search or only cloud the picture if I told you there’s a new condominium complex called Sunny View—two words—on the same road as, and less than half a mile from, Sunnyview—one word—and people looking to move to the former have been confusing the two.”

“Oh,” Becca said.

“As for the book, I think half of Tim’s customers come from Ohio Eastern’s English Department. The woman who bought the mystery could be a new professor who wanted something light to read over the holidays.” Marcello pulled his cell phone from a pocket of his blue slacks. “It’s only a hunch, of course. Do you want me to see if there’s a new professor of English in town?”

“Who would you call?”

“The chair, a Wordsworth scholar named Pavel Browmard. I’ve called him Pavel Blowhard ever since I heard him lecture back in the mid-eighties.”

“It’s Christmas Eve. I’m sure he’s busy.”

“He broke up with his boy-toy from Sandusky a month-and-a-half ago. He’s sitting at home, lonely as a cloud, waiting for the phone to ring. At this point, he’d be happy to receive a crank call.”

“Let’s give it a day or two,” Becca said. She covered his hand with hers. A moment passed, and she was aware of what her touch might be telling him. She would rather spend the night with Pavel Blowhard than Peter Marcello. She removed her hand.

“I’m sorry if I shot down your hopes.” His smile was sympathetic. She understood how women could fall for him, despite his tomcat reputation. She felt herself softening.

“I could be wrong,” he said. “I hope I am if it’s what you want.” Again, he offered her a sympathetic face. “Another glass of wine?”

She finished her third glass faster than she would have liked. There was nothing to impede the progress of the alcohol to her brain, no recent meal to dilute her intoxication. For a musician, she was a lousy drinker. If she had been alone, she might have had a fourth. But she also might have fallen off her stool.

Marcello checked his watch. “The night is either early or late, depending on how much trouble I want to get into at home. Can I give you a lift?”

“I have a car.”

“You aren’t driving in your condition.”

“Right,” she said. “But I have a room at the Hotel Sherman. So I’ll be walking.”

“Then may I walk you to your hotel?”

“I’ll be fine, Sheriff. Thank you. I mean it—thank you.” She wasn’t usually this full of gratitude. But it was Christmas Eve.

“It’s my pleasure,” Marcello said as he left his barstool. He headed toward the exit but turned around. “I look forward to your next CD.” Before pushing open the door, he whistled a tune she recognized as her own: “Manny’s Mortuary (Business is Booming in Dead Town).” He made it sound like a waltz.

She waited five minutes before leaving Don’s Underground and stepping into a dark night. The snow had become thicker and whiter. “Where’s Bing Crosby?” she asked of the empty street. “He doesn’t have to dream anymore.”

By the time she reached her car, she was cold and sober—or at least sober enough to navigate to the Hotel Sherman, where she would rent a room on one of the top floors and stick her head out of the window to catch snow on her tongue. Or she would draw a hot bath and turn as rosy as a sugar plum.

Because of the way the street grid was designed, Becca needed to drive four blocks north before she could make a pair of left turns to go south. But she failed to move into the left lane in time to turn, and soon she was back at the intersection of University Avenue. Unconsciously, she turned right, as if to drive back to her old trailer. “What the hell am I doing?” she asked as the snow splattered her windshield. She made the next right, which sent her skidding down a steep, slick street. She narrowly missed hitting a pickup truck before the right side of her Ford Focus jumped over a curb and onto a tree lawn. She pulled the emergency break, stopping five feet from the rear end of a parked Sherman taxicab. Her heart was beating like a marching band on speed.

After a minute to recover, she stepped out of her car, her purse in her hand, her backpack over her shoulder. The night was even colder now, although it was illuminated by glowing Christmas lights on nearly every house—all but one. The unlighted house belonged to Ariel’s father.

Before he went bankrupt, Peter Bloom owned a five-bedroom house on Sky Lake. His new house was shaped like a cereal box and had light brown vinyl siding. It was the kind of house Rusty and Suzie could probably afford. Peter had invited Becca to the house for tea when she had performed in Sherman more than a year before. Now Becca knocked on the front door, although she didn’t expect to find him home. He was probably in Boston, celebrating the holidays with Ariel and her family.

Becca knew better than to drive again in the snow, so she resigned herself to walking the mile, or whatever the distance, to the Hotel Sherman. But from habit, or simply hoping, she tried the front door. It opened with ease. “Peter?” she called. “Peter?” The house wasn’t entirely dark. Peter had left the kitchen light on, although the eerie fluorescent glow was more suited to Halloween than Christmas. In the dining room, which was to the right of the kitchen at the back of the house, there was, on the table, her menorah. She touched its familiar gold and green tiles, her fingertips tracing memories.

Becca realized she was hungry, a hunger that might keep her up all night. Leaving her coat on, she stepped over to the refrigerator and discovered sandwich meats, cut carrots, a head of lettuce, oranges, apples, grapes, a half full jar of spaghetti sauce, and three boxes of Rice Dreams. Too tired to make herself a proper dinner, even spaghetti, she grabbed an orange and a handful of carrots, which she ate at the kitchen table. Still hungry, she found a box of Granola in a cabinet and ate two bowls of it with rice milk. The house held recognizable smells, familiar from her childhood visits to the Blooms. Or perhaps nostalgia had tricked her nose.

There was a knock on the front door. Becca snapped awake from her reverie. The knock was repeated. Stealthily Becca crept to the window in the living room. Kneeling on an old couch, she peered outside. In front of the door was a group of twelve people, six adults, several teenagers, a few children. They’re a neighborhood watch group, Becca decided. They’ve come to make a citizen’s arrest.

But Becca heard one of the children say, “What are we singing next?” It might have been sacrilege to open a Jewish man’s house to Christmas carolers, but Becca had flung open the door before considering such objections. The carolers launched into “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” snow tumbling onto their hats and into their mouths. After they finished, Becca said, “I don’t have eggnog to offer you. But I’ll applaud.” She clapped vigorously. “Do you do encores?”

A bearded man said, “We’ve never been asked.” The group sang “Silent Night” and, upon finishing, immediately launched into “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Becca joined in halfway, growling the lyrics like Bruce Springsteen.

“You should sing with us,” the bearded man said. He looked at his watch. “We have time for two more houses.”

“Great!” Becca said. She wondered where she had found the enthusiasm. Her wine buzz had worn off. Perhaps it was the rice milk. She followed them down the street. When they asked her name, and she told them, there was no murmur of recognition. If she’d ever thought she was famous, she now had the counterevidence.

The bearded man insisted that Becca move to the front of the group as they serenaded the next house with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

“Who are you?” she finally asked the bearded man. “I mean, all of you.”

“We’re the Twist Family Robinson,” he said and laughed. “It’s true. The six of us adults used to be in a folk band here in the late seventies. Our performances these days are limited to the occasional drive-by Christmas carol.” The snow fell faster. This will be my musical future, Becca thought. Instead of chasing Gold Records and Grammys, I’ll be singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and hoping for hot chocolate. The vision wasn’t as chilling as it might have been in the abstract, however. Becca was having fun.

They finished with “Carol of the Bells,” and midway, Becca stopped to listen to the voices. The Twist Family Robinson must have been one hell of an act in its day. Before the long finished, she joined them again, trolling the bass lines with the men before leaping beyond her range with the women. She lifted her face up to look at the dark sky. Snowflakes landed on her eyes.

When, at last, they said goodnight, Becca thought to ask, Can I join you next year? But they were gone, enveloped in snow.

*

In Peter Bloom’s house again, she was exhausted. In the vestibule, she removed her wet shoes, made of red-and-black leather, which she’d bought with Ariel the last time they were together. Carrying her purse and backpack, she climbed the stairs to the second floor. She remembered her guitar and suitcase, which were in the back of the Focus, but decided against retrieving them.

She completed her bedtime routine—piss, brush teeth, wash face, wash face again—in near unconsciousness. There were four small bedrooms on the second floor, and she found the room Peter had made into a shrine of Ariel’s pre-adult years. In it there was a single bed with a pink comforter and a pink-and-white teddy bear on the end. On the top of the dresser were photographs of Ariel with her mother, with her mother and father, and with Becca. There was a No Exits poster on the wall above the dresser. Ariel and Becca looked somber and determined, a Serious Rock-and-Roll Band With Major Ambitions. They also looked young and, despite their gawkiness—or maybe because of it—beautiful.

The smell in the room was so familiar from long ago, Becca, in her exhaustion, wondered if it was some kind of potion, if she would wake to find herself in high school again. Instead, in the white morning light, she woke to muffled voices, male and female and in several registers. In her grogginess, she thought she was hearing last night’s carolers. She strolled into the bathroom and, instinctually, shut the door. She had fallen asleep in her clothes. While this wasn’t unprecedented, it usually occurred after a night of heavy drinking. The previous night hardly qualified, which was one of the reasons, she supposed, she felt so good. The other reason? “It’s Christmas,” she said softly to the bathroom mirror.

Anticipating coffee, Becca hopped downstairs—or whatever the action of holding on to both banisters and dropping her feet simultaneously onto each successive step should be called. The voices returned, a pleasing cacophony, like a dream she’d awoken from but hadn’t entirely shaken off. She was a step into the kitchen before she realized she wasn’t alone.

“Oh, my God!

*

But Ariel’s surprise was an act. In a minute, she would explain why: She, her husband, and her daughter were supposed to have flown into Sherman the previous night, but their connecting flight in Cleveland had been canceled because of the snow. Her father had driven the hour-and-a-half to Cleveland to pick them up. They arrived at the house at midnight. Stepping inside, Ariel immediately noticed Becca’s shoes. After they tiptoed upstairs, they found Becca asleep, a black-haired Goldilocks.

“It was a Christmas miracle,” Ariel would tell her, smiling.

Now their pretend shock at seeing Becca gave way to genuine smiles, their pleasure—even Carla’s (she wasn’t yet a year old)—abundant. “Welcome home,” Ariel said, opening her arms. Like a redeemed Scrooge finished with chasing ghosts, Becca teared up and hugged them all.

 

Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books, including the novel Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award, and The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose. He is a professor of English and directs the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop at West Virginia University.

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