The winter twilight had painted the snowy hills a murky mauve. The wind rustled through the branches of the pines. Across the highway, a lone Christmas tree gleamed, the only colour left in the darkening world.
Grace stood panting at the top of the hill, sled in hand. Her brother and sister had abandoned her out here in the cold and had gone back inside, lured by the smell of the turkey dinner. Her mother had not yet come out to collect her. She probably hasn’t even noticed, she thought. I’m always the last one she thinks of.
Tired, she flopped to her knees in the snow and absently sucked on the little snowballs stuck to her mittens. She’d wanted her siblings to help her build a ramp for the sled. It was perfect packing snow and she was sure that with the right momentum and angle of approach they could get some serious air. I wonder, she thought, what would happen if I never went back inside? I wouldn’t get to open my gifts…but then, they’re probably all socks anyway. She doubted her parents were going to give her the chemistry set she’d asked for. Little girls aren’t supposed to play with acid, her father kept telling her. Sheesh. How was she supposed to prove her theories without the right equipment?
As Grace pondered, a small movement from under the sumac caught her eye.
“Hello?” she called. “Is someone there?”
She shuffled forward on her knees for a better look. Forgotten, the sled slid a little ways down the slope as she dropped the rope to push a few low branches aside.
Annie flicked on the light over the kitchen sink. The darkness had crept through the windows and left shadows on the cutting board. She was almost finished peeling the potatoes and then there would be time to sit while they boiled and the turkey rested.
She heard the door slam and the kids kicking their boots off. “Putt your mitts on the vents to dry!” she hollered, even as she heard footsteps pounding towards the living room. She wondered again how her own mother had seemed to be everywhere at once. She was having a hard enough time keeping herself together this Christmas, let alone everyone else. Her mother had passed away last month after a long and unpleasant battle with lung cancer. While the loss had left a huge hole in her own heart, her father was devastated. They had decided to carry on with the usual holiday festivities at the farm house, for the kid’s sake, but none of their hearts were really in it. Every time they turned around another piece of Mum was missing from the traditions. This morning the notes in their stockings that they used to take for granted. This afternoon her shortbreads missing from the tea tray.
Annie sighed as she put down the knife and lifted the pot to the sink. Warm hands appeared on her shoulders and began to knead her tight muscles.
“Anything I can do to help, hun?” The hands moved to encircle her waist in a familiar hug. Her husband was a lover of great big bear hugs and could always be counted on to provide warmth just when and where it was needed.
“Not until it’s time to carve the turkey, babe.” She leaned into Mike and closed her eyes, for a moment totally at peace. He was her peace. “You could pour me a glass of wine, though.”
“Coming right up” Mike said, giving her a last squeeze before reaching around to grab wine glasses off the sideboard. His reach was long and he had barely to move his feet to snag the glasses. She turned and leaned against the counter, watching him move as he poured the wine. He was tall and still slim, even as they approached the dreaded middle age. His curly brown hair only showed the slightest flecks of salt and she thought he looked better now than when they had meet twenty years before. And he’d swept her right off her feet during their undergrad years. He was the smooth talking theology student so entirely different from her scientist circle of friends. Of course, it had helped that he had rock hard muscles and played hockey. That had helped to keep her attention and kept her from totally burying herself in the rocks she studied.
“How you doing?” Mike asked softly, handing her the welcome glass.
“Let’s not talk about that until after the day’s over, okay?” She tucked a stray chestnut lock back behind her ears. “I’ll get through it. By hook or by crook.”
“Or by cabernet?” Mike grinned, handing her the glass of ruby red wine. “Hey, we’re all in this together, right?”
“Of course, we are. I just can’t stop and think about it all right now.”
“Alright. Well, a toast then. To the chef!” Mike clinked her glass with his and took a sip of his own wine. “Mmm, better than a crook any day.”
“I’m sure your flock would love to hear that!” Annie laughed while he savored the wine. Mike was the much loved minister at Bayfield United and didn’t take either his calling or his responsibilities lightly. “Alright, funny guy, let’s go sit with the kids while these potatoes boil, shall we? Have they poked any holes in their presents yet?” Annie asked, turning the element to simmer.
Mike turned off the light, allowing the shadows to take up occupancy again in the corners of the kitchen. “Not yet, but I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn’t sent them out to play. Can’t say the same about your Dad’s gifts though. I think he’s got them all figured out now.”
Annie followed Mike out of the kitchen to the living room, stopping to straighten the boots in the hallway and hang up stray scarves and coats. As she continued down the hall, she stopped. She’d only hung up two coats. Straightened two pairs of boots. But she had three children.
Rushing into the living room she saw her family gathered on the couches around the tree. Dad was dozing in the wing chair by the fire, glass of scotch still in hand. Mike had set his wine glass down and was helping Gabriel pick up a stack of toppled hockey cards. Sarah was curled up on the couch with her ever present i-pod and journal.
“Gabriel, didn’t Grace come in with you?” Annie asked. Gabriel was her oldest and could usually be counted on to look out for his younger sisters.
“No, she wouldn’t come in with us. She was building a ramp and wanted to try a new trajectory, or something. Sarah and I were too cold to argue with her. You know how she is when she gets a new experiment in her head.” Gabriel shook his head and went back to picking up the cards.
Annie did know. Grace was her little scientist and her mother had been overjoyed that she’d finally had one “just like her”. Grace could be both a scatter brain and single mindedly focused when processing new data or conducting a new experiment. “Right. Well, I’ll go gather the dear doctor. It’s almost time for dinner.”
She set down her wine glass and went back to the hall, taking her coat off the hook and slipping her feet into her boots. A few minutes outside might help her clear her head anyway.
Pulling the old door shut behind her, Annie headed down the pathway to the back field. “Grace? It’s time to come in, honey.” She rounded the garage, expecting to see her youngest child happily at work. She stopped. The hill was empty. “Grace?” she called louder. “Where are you?”
She hurried to the top of the hill that generations of her family had tobogganed on. The old red sled was down at the bottom of the hill. Grace was nowhere to be seen. Her heart starting to beat faster, Annie scanned the yard. “Grace!” she yelled. Turning, she saw a small dot of colour on the snow near the sumac bushes bordering the yard. Grace’s hat. But no Grace. Just footprints moving into the bush.
“Grace, come out now, you’re scaring Mummy.” Annie moved the branches aside, but could see nothing else in the gloom. Her baby was gone. She got up and ran back toward the house. She needed a flashlight. And she needed Mike.