The heavy clomping of Ellie’s “sneaking” downstairs woke Jack. The dream catcher spun in the gray light of predawn, accompanied by the steady drumming of rain.
Jack sat up, wiping a sleeve across one of the foggy windowpanes. A hard, steady rain was falling, and what snow was left had gone a dreary brown-gray.
The grayness was broken by an unsteady yellow glow, coming from the front window of the house next door. Jack looked over at the clock.
Jack pulled on a few more layers over his pajamas, and made his way down stairs.
Ellie looked up from where she sat on the couch. “It’s raining, Jack.”
He nodded. “Yeah, so I can see.”
“Do you think Santa gets lost in the rain?”
“What if Rudolph gets sick? What if he has to stay home?”
“That’s why Santa has GPS.” Jack snapped the hood onto his parka.
“Does he really?”
“Where do you think the military got the idea?” Jack asked her.
She thought about that, forehead crinkled up, tip of her tongue sticking out from between her teeth.
“I don’t know why I didn’t think of that,” she said. “You’re pretty smart for a boy.”
Jack smiled and zipped his coat, grabbing one of the umbrellas from the stand by the door.
“I’m going next door. I’ll be back in a while.”
“We’ll start opening presents without you if you don’t come back!”
Footing was treacherous, between the slush, mud, and slicked-ice. Jack kicked as much of a path as he could on his way over, then squelched through the mud that seemed to make up most of Beth’s front yard.
He pulled his boots off once he got under the front porch eaves, and leaned the umbrella against the house.
A steady, flickering yellow glow lit the front dining room window. Jack pulled the screen door open and used the big, wrought-iron door knocker, wincing at how loud it sounded, even above the rain.
Beth answered the door, her hair up under a kerchief. Her eyes were bright against the dusting of flour that covered most of her face. The apron was smeared here and there with flour dust and hand prints.
Behind the apron, Jack saw she was wearing a long, white, ankle-length nightgown. Her pink socks were dusted with flour as well.
“Jack! What are you doing up so early?”
“Somebody sneaking downstairs woke me up, and I saw the light in the window. I hope it’s not too early.”
She made a dismissive gesture. “I’ve been up for hours. Come in, the kitchen is nice and warm. I’m baking!”
“So I see,” Jack said, stepping inside. The house held a chill, but it diminished as they got to the kitchen. The air smelled of something baking, touched with cinnamon and something… fruity.
“Oh, wait,” Beth said, stopping him just inside the doorway.
“What? I took my boots off.”
She pointed up. Jack saw a sprig of mistletoe, tacked above the door lintel.
“Please tell me you didn’t go climbing trees for—”
Beth’s lips tasted like flour and sugar and cinnamon.
“Merry Christmas,” she said, as she turned and padded into the kitchen.
It was in worse shape than Beth. Flour dusted most of one section of the countertop and the cupboards above it. The sink was filled with two large, batter-spattered bowls and wooden spoons. The floor was powdered, except where it was obvious a broom had been dragged through it.
“Did you use any of that to bake with?”
“I… sort of dropped the flour as I was getting it down from the cupboard.”
Jack picked up the broom from the corner, and started sweeping.
“You’re my guest! What are you doing?” Beth asked, trying to tug the broom from his grasp.
Jack didn’t let go. “I’m making sure neither of us slip. Now go… You might want to do something about…” He gestured around her face with a waggling finger.
Beth wiped her fingers across her cheeks, turning the dusting of flour into a pasty smear.
“No, not your hair!” Jack said, grabbing her hand as she reached towards her bangs. “Maybe you should just go outside and stand in the rain.”
Beth wiped at her nose, then wrinkled it as the flour turned to goo. She glanced at her hands, then at the oven, and then down her front.
“Go clean up,” Jack said. “I’ll take care of in here.”
“When the buzzer goes off, just take that thing out of the oven and set it on the stove to cool.”
“I thought I’d just leave it in there to burn if you weren’t back in time.”
“You really need to stop listening to your sister. I’ll be back!” Beth hurried off as quickly as her ankle would allow.
* * * * *
Twenty minutes later, hair still damp, the apron back on over baggy maroon sweats, Beth stood stirring a saucepan full of milk.
“It was supposed to be a ring, but I couldn’t find the bigger cookie sheet, so… it’s sort of a braid.”
The lumpy, jellied-fruit-filled mass lay puffed and cooling on a wire rack on the newly-cleaned kitchen counter.
“Well, it looks…”
Beth glowered over her shoulder.
“Edible, at least. Not like your muffin-blobs.”
“You said they were good!”
“They were! Just… sort of scary to look at.”
“Once I find all the cooking stuff, I’ll be a better cook. You’ll see.”
“That sounds like a threat,” Jack said.
“This hot chocolate is very hot,” the girl said, stirring the head-shaped mug as she brought it over to the kitchen table. “It would be a shame if some spilled on you.”
Jack raised his hands. “Okay, okay. You win.”
Beth returned with her death’s head mug, sitting opposite Jack across the small table. They sat in silence, sipping hot chocolate, listening to the rain and the tick of the cooling stove.
“For all your talk of wanting sisters, Beth, I don’t think you know how nice this is… Just… sitting here, in the quiet.”
“Well, it was just lonely until you got here,” she said, staring at a swirling marshmallow.
“You must miss your dad,” Jack said.
Beth nodded. “He called, earlier, so we got to talk. He’ll be home before spring. It gets too rainy there to do any work.”
A smile finally flickered across Beth’s face.