“You would think the girl had never gotten a nail file before,” Charlotte murmured to her sister.
“Stop spoiling her fun,” Hannah said.
“I haven’t been able to find some of this stuff, in all the boxes and packing materials,” Beth said. “I think I was using my dad’s toothbrush.”
“We sort of figured that might be the case — not necessarily the tooth brush situation, but…” Jack’s mother smiled.
“Thank you, both of you,” Beth said. She slipped the toothrbush and nail care kit into the stocking, and set it up against the couch, between her feet.
“So, what happens next?”
“Ellie gets her Santa hat back on and gets back to work,” Jack said, and Charlotte set the hat back on her sister’s head, pushing it till it nearly came down over the girl’s eyes.
Ellie pushed the hat back up and glowered at her sister, then leaned over and picked up the first package, squinting at the card.
“Take your time,” Hannah said.
“What does it start with?” Charlotte asked, leaning over, and Ellie snatched it up and away.
“It’s just a name. How long can it take?”
“It’s your messy handwriting, so it takes a looong time!” Ellie said.
“Still want sisters?” Jack asked.
“They’re awfully loud,” Beth said.
“This one’s for Beth!” Ellie put the gift down on the coffee table in front of her.
Jack leaned over. Sure enough, in Charlotte’s crabbed handwriting, there was Beth’s name. “Could you write it any smaller, Charlotte?”
“Here’s one for Mom!” Ellie dragged a big box over to her mother’s chair. “It says ‘from Santa’ but it looks like dad’s writing,” Ellie whispered.
She went through the packages without missing a single one. She stopped when she got partway through Beth’s gifts.
“What is it, Ellie?” her mother asked.
The girl scratched her head under the Santa hat. “Who’s ‘Marg-ret? And ‘Bill’”
“Ellie, dear, that’s your father and I,” her mother said.
Ellie frowned. “I think Santa dropped these off at the wrong place.”
“Ellie, that one is from me, not Santa,” Beth said.
“Well, if it’s for Mom and Dad, then why didn’t you write that?” The girl pointed to the tag.
“I—” Beth blushed.
“Ellie,” Charlotte said, “she’s not hitched to Jack yet. She doesn’t get call them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ until after the wedding.”
Beth blushed even brighter.
“Oh,” Ellie said. She turned to Beth. “You better get married soon. You’re confusing me!”
The girl looked as though she wanted to crawl under the sofa cushion.
* * * * *
“Is that all of them?” Jack’s father asked.
“Oh, wait. There’s one more” Beth said. She pointed across to the dining room, where the large box sat in the corner by the umbrella stand. “There’s still that box there, from my dad. But it’s heavy. Have Jack help you, Ellie.”
Ellie scampered over to it, and heave as she might, she didn’t get it to budge more than a few inches.
Jack stepped over the wall of presents Ellie had built around him, and helped her drag the box over towards the living room.
“What’s it say on the label, there, Ellie?” he asked.
“‘To The Jacobs. Merry Christ-mas,” she read, pronouncing the ‘t.’ “‘From Doctor Har- Har-ris-son,’” she sounded out.” She looked up. “So… it’s for everybody?”
“Looks that way,” Jack said. “What do you say we save it for last?”
Ellie nodded, and hopped across the room to her pile of presents.
“All right,” said Jack’s father, leaning forward. “Now, since you played Santa this year, that means someone else gets to start unwrapping presents.”
Ellie set down the gift she was about to tear into, her lower lip trembling.
“That only seems fair, doesn’t it?” Jack’s father asked her.
The girl looked at the gift, then up at the hat still perched on her head. She sighed. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Well, since you’re Santa, we’ll let you pick who starts.”
Ellie’s eyes brightened, and she looked around the room.
“How do I pick?” she asked.
“How would Santa pick?” Jack’s mother asked.
“He’d make a list! And check it! And the naughty ones wouldn’t go first.” She looked at Charlotte.
“The nice one would!” Ellie glanced back and forth between Hannah and Beth.
“Sure, just rule me out,” Jack said. “Never mind that I won that costume contest for you.”
Ellie looked between the three, a frown beginning to work at her forehead.
“Way to go, Jack. You’re gonna make her cry,” Charlotte said.
Beth leaned forward. “Ellie. Take a deep breath. No matter who you pick, I don’t think the others will be mad at you. I know I won’t be. And I don’t think Jack or Hannah would be, either. And if Jack is, I’ll smack him for you.”
“You won’t be mad?”
“Ellie, I’ll get a turn to open presents eventually, anyway. It doesn’t matter if I’m first or last. I’m patient. I can wait. I’m good at waiting. Remember?”
Ellie nodded. “You waited for Jack to bring you back,” she whispered. “You said you’d wait as long as it took, even if it was forever.” Her eyes shot wide as she glanced over at Jack, and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
“That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard,” Hannah said.
“Why’d you have to waste something like that on Jack?” Charlotte asked.
“Actually… what I said was I’d wait as long as it took, which might be forever, knowing Jack.”