Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
I remember these words from the Christmas story Mama used to read to me. I wish there wasn’t a creature stirring in my house, but there is, and it’s not a mouse. It’s a rat. My younger brother, Toby, letting himself in my room. I close my eyes and bury myself in the covers, but he doesn’t take the hint. The floorboards squeak under his SpongeBob slippers. “Erin? You awake?”
The squirt jumps on my bed and jerks the covers off me. “Santa came! We have to open presents. Come on!”
I stifle the urge to enlighten him about who Santa really is. He’s only six so maybe he should hold onto the Santa concept a while longer. I’m fifteen, but I lost Santa long ago. I blink open an eye to look at the clock. “It’s only seven!”
“Mama’s up. She won’t let me open anything till you come. So get up!” He pulls the pillow from under my head and pounds me with it. So young. Soon to be so dead if he doesn’t stop.
Nowhere near ready to face this day, I stumble out of bed.
And mama in her kerchief …
“Merry Christmas, Erin,” Mama says, hugging me. She smells like coffee. She’s wearing her tattered pink bathrobe with the mutant candy cane pin Toby made at school.
“Presents! Let’s open presents!” My brother is bouncing up and down like a basketball and pointing to his haul under the artificial tree. Mama nods and he dives in, paper and ribbons flying as one present after another is attacked. A new baseball glove. The matchbox cars from me. The roller blades Mama said she’d never get him. An “Operation” board game.
“Why don’t you open yours?” Mama says.
I stagger to the tree and drop. I can see the yellow sweater in the Gap gift bag that I’d asked for. I didn’t think she’d buy it because of the low neckline. But I’m almost sixteen now, even if Dad refuses to believe it.
I spot a larger wrapped gift that I have no clue about. I tear into the brightly starred paper. “A TV?”
“You’ve been wanting one for your room,” Mama says, grinning. “I guess Santa heard you.”
“Santa spent too much.” I frown. Mama doesn’t have this kind of money, even now that Dad’s paying child support on time. Finally. And speaking of Dad, he’s supposed to come for us in just another hour.
“Go get dressed,” Mama says. “I’ll have breakfast ready.”
I take a quick shower and put on the new sweater. When I make my way to the kitchen, I find juice, eggs, sausage, and toast for breakfast. What surprises me is the other dish: Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats.
“Hey, there’s cereal in them,” Mama says. “That counts as breakfast. Besides, I know they’re your favorite!” They are. I shove one in my mouth and decide this is a tradition worth keeping.
The doorbell rings, and Toby rushes to answer. “Daddy!” he yells, jumping into the hairy waiting arms. “Santa came to your house, too. Right?”
“Sure, sport.” Dad has on a red pullover that must have been knitted by a someone Toby’s age. Or his new wife, Marissa.
“We better get going,” he says to me, glancing down at my new sweater but not commenting. He nods to Mama and she gives him a little fake smile back. But hey, at least they aren’t yelling. Last year, their screaming match started in the living room and ended in the driveway as Dad sped us away.
I grab our overnight bags as the squirt stuffs his pockets with matchbox cars. When we get to Dad’s new Infiniti, I help him buckle the seatbelt. Dad’s parked behind our Daewoo that doesn’t even have a CD player.
I worry about Mama the whole way to Dad’s house. She’s alone now. She got us for less than two hours and now she’s stuck watching The Christmas Story marathon by herself. I know Uncle Stewart gave her a bottle of wine, and I almost hope she’ll drink it to get through the day.
Marissa opens the door as soon as Dad pulls up. She’s done something with her hair—it’s layered now, but the layers are flipping in every direction. She could use a little tutoring in styling gel, but that’s not my business. She’s wearing an identical sweater to Dad’s. Hers, however, bulges in the middle, over the baby she’s carrying. The little girl she’s “always wanted” is due in March.
Toby hugs her because he’ll do anything to get more presents. She reaches for me and I stiffen. I don’t hate her. She didn’t cause my parents’ break up. But I think she’s stupid because she doesn’t get it that Dad may walk out on her, too. He just doesn’t stand still very well.
At least, that’s what Mama said when he left us.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear …
We gather in their living room for round two of Christmas. “A Playstation! I’ve always wanted this!” Toby bellows, spinning around like some Chihuahua on speed.
“You have?” Marissa laughs. We’ve ALL known, for years, how much Toby wanted that. But he’s not touching my new TV.
Dad hands me a box with store wrapping. It’s too big and heavy to be another National Geographic gift subscription, thank God. I open it to find a leather jacket. A gorgeous tan. Soft as butter. Expensive. Very expensive, I know.
“Try it on,” Marissa coaxes.
It’s a perfect fit. The color nearly matches my honey-colored hair.
“You look beautiful, Erin. I knew you would!” she says.
“Too beautiful. Take the damn thing off before a boy sees you,” Dad jokes, drawing an exaggerated laugh from his wife.
“I love it. Thanks,” I squeak out. It feels a little like betrayal, my liking this present from HER. But the jacket feels so wonderful. And I feel-- I don’t know-- older in it.
Toby’s enthusiasm over the Playstation is nothing compared to his elation over the new trail bike, and I grab the handlebars before he crashes it into the Christmas tree. I’m kind of pleased about the fifty dollar bill Dad slips me, too. “I know you’d rather shop for yourself,” he says. I suspect this is Marissa’s influence, but I’m not complaining. I need jeans to go with the new sweater and jacket.
Marissa serves us brunch. A full table spread—an egg casserole, sausage, croissants, fruit, and orange juice. I’m nowhere near hungry but do my best to poke at the meal as she brings out another dish: Peanut Butter Rice Krispie treats. “You can have early dessert on Christmas,” she says. “A little birdie told me they’re your favorite!”
Toby’s about to fall off his chair he’s laughing so hard and I send him a death glare that he better not say anything. I eat one to be polite.
“Well, I guess we’d better head over to your parents’,” Dad says to Marissa.
This is the part of the day that I’ve been dreading. We pull up to Mr. and Mrs. Oakland’s fancy house on Lake Katherine. Toby always acts like it’s a children’s museum, handling all their fancy glass stuff, spilling soda on their white carpets, terrorizing their neurotic Persian cat.
Meals there are torture. I feel like the Oaklands are waiting for me to choose the wrong fork. Marissa’s older brother, William, is there with his ten-year- old son, Steven, who’s in private school, and takes piano and violin lessons. He’s perfect, by the way. I’m sure we’ll be subjected to a piece from his latest recital. “Flight of the Bumblebee” done on off-key violin.
I should have brought my kazoo.
Mrs. Oakland gives me a polite hug and says, “What a lovely jacket!”
“Thanks,” I say. “It’s from Santa.”
She nods and gives me a conspiratorial wink.
“So is the sweater,” I add.
“I see,” she says.
I’m furious that she doesn’t compliment the gift from Mama. I storm past her, which she doesn’t notice, and make my way to the library where I pull out my cell and dial home.
“It’s me, Mama.”
“Hey, you. Having fun?” She sounds so relaxed, I suspect she’s opened the wine. At least she doesn’t have to drive anywhere.
“Sure. How’s Ralphie?”
“Darren McGaven just opened the lamp.”
It’s my favorite scene in The Christmas Story, Ralphie’s dad opening the hideous lamp of a woman’s leg. Suddenly, I’m homesick and wish I was watching it with Mama.
“You at the Oaklands?”
“The outside fork is for salad,” she says, and tells me to have a good time. I’m nearly crying as we hang up.
I find the family sitting close to the ten- foot cedar that they paid someone to decorate. Steven explains to Toby that Santa brought the latest iPhone and iPad. Toby shows him the Matchbox cars, which he seems to think are just as impressive.
Santa has stopped at the Oaklands, too, I see. I’m given a gift certificate for the Gap. Toby goes hyper-manic over the three PlayStation games they have for him.
Dreaded dinnertime comes. I worry when they seat Toby across from me. He’s out of my reach and may need me to contain him. Dad’s close enough, though, and drapes an arm over the back of his chair.
I’ve never had lamb before and find I like it if I ignore that Toby is humming “Mary had a little lamb.” I’m not very hungry, but I taste a bit of everything, and pretend to listen as the Oaklands tell us how awesome Steven is. He’s the president of the science club and his class is taking a trip to New York this spring. Steven himself tells us his dad is taking him hunting after Christmas. I think of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun, and wonder if Steven will shoot his eye out.
Mr. Oakland pours me a tablespoon of wine so I can toast with the adults. It’s like having Communion. But then I think of Mama, and wonder if she’s finishing her bottle as she eats a Lean Cuisine.
Marissa prattles on about the baby’s nursery, which she will paint yellow. “Like your sweater,” she says to me. I smile numbly and nod when she asks if I’ll help.
“I will too!” Toby chimes in, and I have a fleeting fantasy of turning him loose alone with the paintbrush. I wonder how the baby will look painted the color of marigolds.
When dessert arrives, it’s a tall chocolate cake thing with cherries clustered on the top. It scares me to think what the sugar/caffeine combination is going to do to the squirt. I pray Dad takes us back to his house before Toby decides to juggle the Oakland’s Hummel collection. As dessert plates circle the table, a special one is placed before me.
Mrs. Okland beams as I stare at the dish. “We made this for you special, Erin. I understand Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats are your very favorite!”
“Yes,” I mutter, catching Dad’s grin and Toby’s gasp. I lift the bar and take a bite. My third dessert and it’s not even six.
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry …
After a while, we return to the living room and sure enough, Steven entertains us with a piano concert. I vaguely recognize the theme from Harry Potter and I jostle the squirt who’s sitting beside me. He’s a huge HP fan.
But Toby doesn’t respond, except to lean into my arm. “You okay?” I ask.
“Feel sick.” He looks it, too. Cheeks flushed bright red. Hands clutching his stomach.
“Uh oh.” I grab him and get him to the bathroom just as the chocolate torte explodes into the bowl. Dad comes in beside me and rubs Toby’s back while I wash off his face.
“All done?” Dad asks.
“Don’t know,” the squirt answers, looking miserable.
“We should get him out of here,” I say.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back …
Dad collects all the packages from the Oaklands in a big sack as Marissa and I guide Toby to the car. He’s wilted against the seat as he says, “Take me home.”
Home is not Dad’s. I know it, and I think Marissa does, too. When Dad cranks up the car, she says, “Toby needs his mom.” Maybe she wasn’t ready to deal with a puking kid. Or maybe she knows what’s best for the squirt. After all, she’ll be a mother herself one day soon.
Either way, I could have kissed her.
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
It’s nine PM and we’re home. The squirt had some Pepto and went to bed without even hooking up the PlayStation. Mama’s sipping hot chocolate on the sofa beside me as we both stare at the gas logs in the fireplace.
“So how’d it go?” she asks.
“I see you’ve been generous with your Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treat recipe.”
“How was your day?” I ask, hoping for an honest answer.
She sets down her mug. “Good, actually. Quiet. I opened presents with Mom and Stewart—over the phone, that is. She got me a beautiful new robe.”
I study her carefully, looking for signs that she had a miserable day but they aren’t there. I’ve already checked out the wine. Last year I came home to an empty bottle, but tonight, only one glass was gone. And Mama looks okay. Relaxed. Comfortable.
I think back on my day. Marissa’s a pain but she’s trying. The Oaklands didn’t pass out when Toby crashed his matchbox car into their Wedgewood vase. Maybe Dad’s finally growing up, just in time for offspring number three. And thanks to the squirt, I’m home earlier than planned.
It wasn’t the day I’d been dreading. I’m splitting Christmas between three different houses, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’m almost sixteen now, after all.
“Oh, there’s one more present for you. From your Gram,” Mama says. “I promised I’d make sure you opened it before bedtime.” She hands me the gift, wrapped in newspaper and red ribbons. I tear off the paper and open the metal tin. Mama laughs and I almost barf as I lift out the plate. “With love, from your Gram: Your very favorite Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats.”
And I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!
Peanut Butter Rice Krispie Treats
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup Karo syrup
1 cup smooth peanut butter
5-6 cups Rice Krispies
Heat sugar and Karo until hot. Add peanut butter and bring to boil. Remove from heat, add cereal, and spread into well greased pan. Cool and cut into bars.
Serve for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Christmas day.