Jack’s mother opened the front door after the timid knock.
“Good morning, Beth,” she said, pushing open the screen door. “You know you don’t need to knock.”
“Well, my hands were sort of full this morning, and —”
“And you’re just shy,” said Charlotte, from the dining room table.
Beth scooted inside, stepping out of her boots in the doorway while balancing a towel-covered tray of some sort. Her hands were still clad in oven mitts.
“Let me get that,” Jack’s mother said, grabbing the mitts and slipping them from Beth’s hands as she whisked the tray past the dining room table.
Jack pushed the extra chair next to his out, and patted it.
“A gentleman would help me get my coat off,” the girl said, working at the oversized buttons of her maroon coat.
Jack stuffed the rest of half a slice of toast in his mouth, and got to his feet.
He reached for Beth’s scarf, and she hopped back.
“You have strawberry jelly on your fingers,” she said. “And don’t just lick them off!”
Jack paused, hand halfway to his mouth.
“Never mind, I’ll get it myself,” she said, reaching under for the inner buttons. She struggled out of the coat, unwinding her scarf and hanging it over the peg along with her coat. The green-and-orange cap got stuffed into one of the deep pockets.
“What?” Beth asked.
“I unpacked some more boxes last night. And organized.”
“But… everything — even your socks.”
“You like them? My dad got them for me last year.”
“They have Rudolph on them!” Ellie said, pointing.
Beth lifted the legs of her pants. “And Donner and Blitzen, too.”
“I don’t want to know where Dasher, Dancer, and Prancer are,” Charlotte said with a smirk.
Beth rolled her eyes as she dropped into her seat at the table.
“Green looks good on you,” Jack said, around another mouthful of toast.
“Well, I’m glad you approve,” the girl said with a smile. “Red really doesn’t suit you, though.”
Jack looked down. He was in browns and grays.
Beth wiped a glob of jelly from his cheek.
There was a flash and a chirp.
Jack glowered up at his sister, whereas Beth snatched her hand away, staring down at her lap.
“Don’t mind me,” Hannah said, peering at the viewscreen on the back of her camera.
Jack’s mother came around the corner, with a cloth-draped basket.
“All right, who wants… Beth, dear, what are these poor things?”
She set the basket on the table, and flipped back the towel. Inside were half a dozen brownish, misshapen blobs that smelled of apples and cinnamon.
“Well, they were supposed to be muffins, but… I couldn’t find the muffin tin. And they oozed out of the little foil wrappers while they were cooking and… well, there they are.”
Ellie reached over and snatched one up, dropping it onto her plate of eggs and bacon, blowing on her fingers.
Jack scooped one up, onto his plate, and cut it open down what was as close to the middle as it had.
“Well, they smell great,” he said. He broke off part, and chewed quickly, his eyes lighting up with approval as he nodded.
Charlotte and Hannah braved the would-be muffins as well. Jack’s mother brought Beth a plate of scrambled eggs and extra-crispy bacon, and a small cup of pills.
“Look,” Jack said, nudging the cup with his fork. “It’s already half-empty.”
“You mean half-full,” Beth sulked.
“Always the optimist,” Charlotte said with another smirk.
* * * * *
Beth looked up from the game board.
“There’s no tree,” she said.
Jack flicked the spinner, advanced his little blue car three spaces.
“We haven’t done a Christmas tree since Ellie was born,” Hannah said, taking her turn at the spinner. She moved her red car up nine spaces. “Oh, not another one!” she said, frowning at the event on the space she’d landed on. She fished out another pink peg to add to her already full car. “There’s no room!”
“Maybe one of your little blue ones is finally old enough to drive,” Charlotte said, pushing the green car onto the board.
“When I’m old enough to play this game, I want the green car. Since they don’t have a pink one,” Ellie said. Then she went back to her work with crayons at the end of the table.
“I would have thought you of all families would have a Christmas tree,” Beth said.
“You sound disappointed,” said Jack.
“Well, it’s not—”
“Don’t say it,” he said, holding up a finger.
“Hey,” Charlotte said. “Banker. I won the lottery. Cough it up.”
Jack counted out the bright orange bills. Charlotte re-counted them.
“Your turn, Beth,” she said.
The girl gave the spinner a whirl, counting under her breath as she skipped her yellow car along. She glanced at the space again, biting her lip.
“What?” Jack asked, leaning over.
“I just lost my house to a fire,” she said.
“Are you trying to hit every tragedy square in the game?” Charlotte asked. “You’ve got flood, and now fire. Did they even put a ‘famine’ space on here?”
“It could be worse,” Jack said. “You could have all those kids like Hannah has.”
Beth’s car, aside from a pink and blue peg, was empty.
“Yeah. That’s real reassuring,” she said, her voice catching.
Jack looked across the table at his sisters. Hannah’s eyebrows rose, and she shrugged. Charlotte simply raised her hands in a ‘not going to touch it’ gesture.
Beth pushed her chair back, sniffling, as she reached for her coat.
“I’m sorry, I need some air,” she said, and was out the door before she’d even gotten halfway into her coat.
Jack’s mother poked her head into the dining room. “Goodness, what was that all about?”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Jack said.
“Well, go after her, Sherlock,” Charlotte said, pointing towards the door.
“An hour, Jack, unless you’re next door. It’s cold out there,” his mother said.
“I’ll have her back by then,” he said, pulling on his coat.