The rain didn’t let up any in the time it took them to finish their hot chocolate. Beth wrapped the fruit-braid in plastic wrap and they braved their way across the two yards, Jack holding Beth tight against him as they huddled under the umbrella.
They left boots and the dripping umbrella on the porch, and Beth made her way quickly over to the fireplace after she’d hung up her coat, huddling below the toes of the stockings that hung there.
“It could have at least snowed if it was going to be cold,” she said, through chattering teeth.
“Oh, Jack!” his mother said, as he handed her the misshapen fruit ring. “There you are. I thought you were still asleep.”
“No, somebody clomping down the stairs woke me up, so I went over to check on Beth. I even told somebody I was there.” He glared across the room at Ellie.
“Oh yeah!” she said. “Jack went next door.”
Beth made her way into the kitchen, rolling up her sleeves.
“Good morning, Margaret, merry Christmas. What can I do to help?”
“Help making breakfast on Christmas morning,” Jack’s mother said. “Well, the sun is barely up and already you’re breaking tradition.”
“It’s a pleasant break in the usual, dear. Would you mind keeping an eye on the french toast?”
Beth busied herself in front of the stove, and by the time the french toast was finished, Charlotte and Hannah had come downstairs.
“I don’t know how you two can sleep through the monster going down the stairs,” Jack said.
“Try sharing a room with her,” Charlotte said. “What is that… thing?”
“It’s a fruit ring, obviously,” Jack said.
“Oh. Right. Obviously. Looks more like a fruit—”
Hannah’s elbow dug into her sister’s side as Beth came out of the kitchen with a couple plates.
“Good morning,” she said, setting plates down in front of the two girls. “Merry Christmas.”
Hannah smiled, despite still trying to get her eyes to open all the way. Charlotte plastered the biggest smile she could muster. “Good morning, Sunshine,” she said.
Beth scooted behind Jack’s chair.
“Stop, Charlotte, you’re scaring her.”
Jack’s father came downstairs just then, nodded a good morning to Beth, and went to give the fire a poke or two before settling at his place at the table.
“Pumpkin, you better get over here before we eat all the breakfast without you. And you know the rule.”
Ellie gave a squeak, and leapt up from the couch, making it to her seat at the end of the table in a flash.
“The rule?” Beth asked, setting a plate down in front of Jack.
“No breakfast, no presents.”
Beth nodded. “Good rule.” She bent to go back to the kitchen, but Jack’s mother came around the corner with the last of the plates.
“Sit, dear, you need to stay off that ankle as much as possible.”
“Well, good morning, family,” Jack’s father said, and gave Beth a long look. “Merry Christmas, everyone. It has been a good year. Better in some ways than others. I’m glad that most of you have been good this year, and so will actually be getting presents instead of coal in your stockings.”
Beth glanced over at the fireplace. There were five stockings. She bit her lip, blinking rapidly.
Jack’s father raised his glass of orange juice. “So, to the Christmas spirit.”
Glasses clinked around the table. Ellie sloshed half hers across her end of the table, and Jack managed to haul Beth’s chair out of the way of the orange cascade.
“Welcome to normal Christmas breakfast,” he said with a grin, as he got up to get a towel.
* * * * *
After breakfast, they retired to the living room, and Jack’s father plunked a Santa hat on Ellie’s head.
“It’s time to see if you’ve been paying attention all year in school.”
The girl squealed, clapping her hands.
“Santa gets to divvy up all the presents,” Jack said. He was sitting on the couch, next to Beth. Charlotte and Hannah sat on the floor, one by the coffee table, the other closer to the fireplace. Jack’s parents sat in the two recliners on the far side of the hearth.
“So… Ellie’s going to have to read the cards,” Beth said, nodding. “She can do it. You’ve been helping her all year.”
“This one’s mine!” she cried, hoisting her stocking from its hook.
“No fair,” Charlotte said. “Yours is the only pink one.”
Ellie stuck her tongue out. She plucked the next one off its hook. It was plain red, with a gold “H” in sequins on the white fluffy rim. Ellie plopped it in front of Hannah.
“Lucky guess,” Charlotte muttered. Ellie handed her the green stocking with snowmen on it, the top embroidered with a “C.”
Jack’s was red, with Santa’s head on it, marked with a big, loopy “J” in glittery puffy paint.
“Oh, that’s too cute,” Beth said.
“Last one is Beth’s!” Ellie cried, lifting it off the hook, and laying the stocking on the coffee table in front of the girl. It was white, with an angel on it, a green-and-gold “B” embroidered on the side.
Beth blinked. “It’s…. It’s so pretty!”
“Ellie helped pick it out,” Jack’s mother said.
“Now now, don’t thank us yet,” Jack’s father said. “There’s gifts in there, too. You can thank us after all the unwrapping. Well, go on, get to it.”
“This is the free-for-all part,” Jack said. “No turns.” He was unwinding a long paper-wrapped tube.
Beth dug in. She couldn’t remember a Christmas ever being this exciting.