For several seconds, Granna was as red as her lipstick. And her lipsticked lips were pressed in a firm line. Her dark eyes didn’t so much burn as they just… smoldered as she glared at Beth.
“Ellie,” Hannah said. “What did we tell you about talking about those sorts of things?”
“Not on the bus and not at school. But this is home. And Granna is family!”
Ellie looked up. “Granna, why is your face all red?”
“Oh, come on, Granna,” Charlotte said. “This is Jack we’re talking about. It’s not like he’d ever do anything.”
“He’s not the one I’m worried about.”
Jack grabbed Beth’s wrist, holding it as tightly as he could until the fist she’d made relaxed, and the muscles along her jaw unclenched. Her skin, though, went pale, the color sliding out from behind the light pink lip gloss.
“Come on, Beth, let’s get you out of the line of fire,” Jack whispered to her. He wanted to put his hand on her shoulder, to guide her over to the couch before she fell over. But her dress didn’t have shoulders — there were arms, and a part that went out around her shoulders, but nothing actually… there.
He didn’t dare put a hand on her waist. The last time he’d done that, he’d stepped all over her feet. He moved his grip down to her hand. Hands were safe. He moved around behind her, and caught a hint of that perfume again. Strawberries, and that perfume.
There was a flash, and a chirp.
“Sorry, but you two are just so cute!” Hannah said from behind the camera.
Jack felt himself blushing, and managed to maneuver Beth to the couch without tripping over her or himself. His mother was there, the blood pressure cuff in her hand seemingly by magic.
“I’d be afraid to use this thing on myself right now,” she told Beth, with a dark look over her shoulder. “She’s not usually this bad,” she said, squeezing the bulb.
She went through the process, did it again.
“Mother, you’re closest to the kitchen,” Jack’s mother called back to her. “There is a white bag on the counter. I need one pill from the bottle in there, and a large glass of water.”
Granna Nellis just stared.
“Quickly, Mother!” She used the ‘nurse voice.’
Jack was amazed to see his grandmother jump to it, but at the same time, having been on the receiving end of the ‘nurse voice, it wasn’t surprising.
He heard feet on the stairs, caught the bemused look on his father’s face as Granna hurried by with the glass and bottle.
“Ah, Winifred. I thought I heard the car,” said Jack’s father. “Hope the drive wasn’t too tedious. Heard there was some bad weather up to the north.” He gave his mother in law a hug.
“I see you’ve met our other guest for dinner tonight.”
Jack’s father leaned down gave his wife a kiss. Jack was close enough to hear his father whisper “Masterfully done.”
* * * * *
“Aren’t Christmas presents supposed to be for… Christmas?” Beth asked, staring at the large boxes in each of the Jacobs’ laps as they sat around the living room.
“It’s a family tradition,” Granna told the girl. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Beth bit her lip. Again.
“Since there’s only one Granna, we get her for Thanksgiving, and she visits my brothers for Christmas and New Years,” Jack’s mother explained.
“So… do you take turns opening, or just open them all at once..?” Beth asked. “It’s just me and my dad—”
“Who?” Granna Nellis asked.
Beth glanced nervously over at Jack.
“Do you mean ‘my father and I,’ dear?” Granna asked.
Beth let out a very slow breath. Jack heard her murmuring under her breath “… soe… šašfe… šmoune….” She took another deep breath.
“My father and I just exchange gifts and then open them together. It’s just the two of us, but with more people… I thought maybe you took turns or something. That’s what I’d do if I had brothers and sisters.”
“I get to go first, since I’m the littlest,” Ellie said, tugging at the ribbon.
“We let Ellie pick which way to go around,” Jack told Beth. “We sit her between Hannah and Charlotte, and they spend most of December bribing her. Well, you’ll see next month.”
“You mean your father isn’t going to be home for Christmas?” Granna Nellis asked.
Beth shook her head. “His last postcard said he could be there for a year.”
Granna’s eyes widened, and she glanced sharply at her daughter. “Margaret, you plan on letting her stay for a year?”
“As long as she needs to, Mother. That is our arrangement with Professor Harrison.”
“Honestly— if he’s going to be gone that long, and has no other family, then she needs to be handed over to the State.”
Beth started to tremble.
“Beth, nobody’s going to come take you away,” Jack’s father told her. Then he turned and looked at Grannna. “Winifred, we are trying to give Beth a nice, normal Thanksgiving. You’re not doing a very good job of helping with that.”
“Can I open my present yet?” Ellie asked, her fingers already tangled up in the ribbon.
It took her approximately fifteen seconds to get through the wrapping paper. She fought a bit longer with the tape holding the box shut, until Hannah leaned over and slid one of her long fingernails under one edge of the lid.
Ellie squealed with delight as she flung tissue paper to the sides and revealed a pink quilted bathrobe. She put it on over her dress.
“That looks an awful lot like the robe she’s already got,” Beth said to Jack.
He nodded. “Its a family tradition. You wouldn’t understand.”
She punched him lightly in the arm.