Like the Lights

This year’s Christmas story attempts to capture something of the season’s raised stakes. I hope you enjoy.

Like the Lights

The younger two jumped up and down at the window with giddy shrieks of excitement, announcing his arrival. She looked out over their heads and watched him step out of a taxi. He spoke briefly to the driver and then turned to face the house. She wondered what he had in the small backpack that was strewn across his shoulder. He was clean shaven and by the looks of it, had had a haircut very recently. Under an olive-green raincoat, he was wearing dark blue jeans and a checked shirt she hadn’t seen on him before. As he placed his hand on the gate, she saw him pause and close his eyes. When he opened them, he looked down the road in the direction the taxi had gone as if he was about to summon it back. He took his hand off the gate and turned from the house. She didn’t breathe as she waited to see what he would do. She had a fold of her inside mouth clenched between her teeth as she stood there with her fingers pressing into the windowsill, willing him to walk away. But it was too late. They had thrown open the door without waiting for Mammy and were racing down the path screaming his name. As he walked through the gate and crouched down to receive their enthusiastic hugs, she thought he looked almost frightened. They reeled off their news and their questions faster than he could process but he gamely responded with appropriate sounds of surprise and interest. And then she knew Mammy was in the door because he stopped in his tracks and stood up like a statue. Now he was the one holding his breath. He didn’t move as they pulled on his arms to get him to come in, shouting gleeful exhortations to aid their cause. If anything, rather than moving closer, his body was leaning back towards the gate.

Mammy sounded strong when she greeted him and invited him in, but she couldn’t tell if she really felt that way or if it was an act. She stood in the door onto the hallway and watched her speak to him across the front step. Mammy was careful and controlled, not overly friendly, but not totally cold. She asked him if he was going to stand out there all day and then turned casually and proceeded to the kitchen, where she said there was plenty still to do. Doing their utmost to barrel him in the door, the other two were pushing him from behind, one at each leg, and each with a hand on his back, but he entered the house slowly and cautiously despite their efforts. His eyes widened when he spotted her clinging tensely to the door frame. She became very still and was aware her breathing had become erratic as her heart pushed it high into her throat. She held herself tighter as he wished her a happy Christmas. It was clear he was uncomfortable, but she didn’t see why she should do anything to make him less so. She returned his festive sentiment in a non-committal way and suggested he close the door before too much cold air was let in. She left him there looking like a scolded dog as she went to help with the preparations.

In the kitchen, he also offered his assistance, but Mammy wouldn’t accept, instead sitting him at the table with a big mug of tea and a sandwich while they got on with the vegetables and the little ones ran in and out showing off their presents and getting on and off his lap until they were told to skedaddle. She listened as they spoke to each other. A polite conversation went back and forth about the day that was in it, who would be joining them, and how more than one had been asking after him. She marvelled at the new roles they had taken on and couldn’t help thinking that they must have discussed everything long before he arrived, agreeing on each other’s lines and cues. Throughout it all, he kept his little backpack close as if it was some kind of talisman, sometimes absentmindedly clutching it in his lap as he drank his tea and chatted in the most unnatural way. Mammy maintained her almost breezy demeanour, never giving any indication that the situation might not be to her liking. She tried to spot a tightening of the jaw, a hint of a frown or a drop of anger in her voice, but they simply weren’t there.

She was far less successful at concealing her own feelings and she prickled as if her skin was alive with angry static. For Mammy’s sake she was grudgingly polite, giving terse answers to his gentle enquiries and prompts. He had nothing to say she was interested in and what she wanted him to say he never would, because he was a coward and a liar and really, now that she thought about it, he was the last person she wanted to be spending her Christmas with. She couldn’t understand Mammy’s forbearance, it made her stomach lurch and her neck strain in incomprehension. Maybe she was afraid of what would happen? After all, you couldn’t unexplode a bomb and if Mammy went off, perhaps that would be worse than anything. They’d be left like those shattered cities she sometimes saw on the news. Steel and rubble and lifeless bodies being mourned by survivors covered in a strange compound of choking dust and sticky black blood. She thought that’s what her unhappiness tasted like, as if someone had hoovered up all that debris and dirt and fed it to her, spoonful after spoonful. Her mouth no longer had the anticipatory impulses of appetite, rather it was acrid with a distaste for life. Her friends had tired of her melancholy, forcing her to affect a blasé cynicism, turning her pain into bitter comedy, which did little but add to her sense of shame and confusion. She lived a lie. Being civil for Mammy, being strong for the younger two, being cool and arch for her pals. And yet he could sit there asking her questions about school and what Santa had brought her. She wanted to scream and let him know what he had done to her and to all of them. The best thing would be to curse him out of it, to swear at him up and down until he went white.

But that was her, not Mammy, who had her favourite classical station tuned on the radio as accompaniment to their festive chores. The piece that had just soundtracked her dark thoughts ended and was instantly followed by the presenter speaking in that smooth presenter way, identifying the choir they had been listening to in appreciative tones. It occurred to her that the beauty of the music and the soft syrup of the presenter’s voice were like an invisible comfort blanket Mammy had wrapped around herself, placing a buffer of calm civility and prettiness between her and any unpleasantness that might threaten her committed balancing act. She wasn’t sure if the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had that kind of power, but she knew the radio would keep playing regardless.

The vegetables prepped, the desserts made, and the turkey in the oven since early morning, all they had to do now was wait. The guests would be arriving in an hour or so, bringing with them an injection of warmth and high spirits that even in her current frame of mind, she knew would be infectious. Mammy’s brother and sister and their other halves and their children, her cousins, would practically take over the place, but room had still been made for Benny and Maire, old friends of Mammy’s and his that may as well have been family. They would have Declan with them, a couple of years older than her, and quite cute in his way, but also a bit of a sports hero which could be painful – there were only so many ways to pretend she was interested in how he’d scored the winning points in seven matches that year, not to mention how he’d ‘beasted’ Shane ‘The Ox’ Carter in the schools’ final back in April. However, she wouldn’t rule out kissing him until she could ascertain what level of control he had over his obsession. She was trying to bring to mind his mouth when Mammy asked her if she was going to wear the new top she’d been given from under the Christmas tree that morning. She had already picked out what she was going to wear, and Mammy knew it, so it was code for her to give them some space, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to. Left alone, they would almost certainly get into an argument and then Mammy would be upset for the rest of the day, which would ruin not just the day, but the rest of the holiday. The younger two wouldn’t really pick up on it, but she would. She’d be stepping over the broken pieces for days afterwards. She was about to say she was grand thanks, when Mammy repeated the suggestion with an accompanying look that meant refusal would not be tolerated. Reluctantly leaving the kitchen, she looked back and saw him place his bag by his side. In the few seconds it had taken her to move from one side of the room to the other, his face had changed so completely that she almost didn’t recognise him. It gave her a fright and she suddenly felt very out of her depth in the world of adult pain and deception.

Hovering at the base of the stairs, she was able to see the two younger ones eating chocolate and playing computer games in the living room while at the same time being in earshot of the kitchen, where she was certain they were finally having a real conversation. She could hear him better than Mammy, but he mostly seemed to be saying no to whatever was being said to him. Maybe she was asking him if he had changed or if things were different or if he was safe to be around. Maybe she just wanted to know if he was going to stay sober. She surely wouldn’t have let him in the door otherwise. He could only answer no to that question or he’d be out on his ear, but how could she believe him? Where would the proof be for that? He’d only be telling her what she wanted to hear like he had been doing forever and it was only a matter of time before the house would be full of hurt and disappointment and broken promises. Her grim prophecy had made her numb and she sank slowly to sit on the bottom stair with her arm entwined with the balustrade. She sat there staring over her siblings’ heads at the Christmas tree, whose lights slowly pulsed on and off, coyly hiding and revealing their bright hearts. She wished her life was a simple as that. To be nothing more than a slow, calm heartbeat, fading in and out of the present moment, never staying long enough to be hurt but always coming back to be a part of things. There. And not there. And there again. Just like the lights. The younger two never disappeared, they were obliviously ever-present.

The sound of something breaking in the kitchen made her jump and she got there in time to see him crouched on the floor, his mug in smithereens at his feet. Mammy looked a little flustered but was insisting everything was fine, saying it was an accident. He was very carefully picking up what he had destroyed, as if by being gentle now his damage would be forgotten. He too looked shaken and, disposing of the ceramic remnants into the bin, appeared to be directing his apology as much to himself as to anyone else. He asked for and was given Mammy’s permission to step into the garden. After he left, taking his bag with him, she went to the window to get a better look at what he was up to, but Mammy told her to leave him be and once again suggested she go upstairs to put on the new top. She felt the day unravelling. Mammy had chosen sides and was already operating in a changed mode of damage limitation, trying to control outcomes and keep all agenda items ticking over. She had taken on that strangely glazed look that reminded her of the ham they had cooked the night before – only the cloves and the crosshatching were missing to complete the effect. Maybe when they sat down to eat later somebody could slice away her veneers of unconcern and fork them onto a plate beside the carved turkey, waiting to be drowned in gravy or cranberry or bread sauce. Mammy’s head hung over the sink as she took a moment to herself, braced and kept upright by her determined arms. She watched her breathing in and out carefully, resetting her gauge and bringing herself back to neutral. The room became as still as she was and they were briefly held in the grip of an unbroken serenity, disturbed only by the sounds of computer games coming from the front room and one man and a guitar gently crooning Hark the Herald Angels Sing on the radio. And then with a clap of her hands, it was over as suddenly as it had begun and Mammy was all business again, rushing off to check the table one more time.

She decided not caring what she wore would be easiest and made her way up to her room to change. The window on the landing overlooked the garden and she knew exactly what she was doing when she stopped to look out of it. He was sitting on the slatted garden seat that left marks on your bare thighs when you sat on it for too long in the summer, but now in the middle of winter was paid far less attention, its cracked and chipped paintwork stoically seeing out the dark, cold months under the indifferent gaze of the house and its occupants. A half-smoked cigarette sat securely between his lips as he unzipped his bag and peered into it with a solemn expression that was discernible even at distance. Putting one of his hands into the bag as he retrieved the cigarette with the other, she could see his mouth move as he spoke to someone or something inside it. She wondered for a second if he had an animal in there, a little ferret or a hamster or something, but she dismissed the idea quickly as too absurd. A kitten or a puppy were no less unlikely, and in any case would surely have mewled or whimpered their discovery well before now. Her curiosity deepened the longer she stood there and as her brain ticked off the possibilities, she realised with a feeling of great stupidity the most obvious choice was one she had been stubbornly refusing to consider. Drink. Of course that was what it was, there was nothing else it could have been. She had a chunk of her cheek in her teeth again as she admonished herself for her foolishness. A ferret? Furry animals? She was kidding herself in spite of her better instincts. She allowed her head to knock against the window, alerting him to her presence. He instinctively tried to conceal the bag as he looked in her direction, but his face gave away his guilt. Looking like some sort of pathetic zombie, she tried to burn a hole in him with her eyes, and it must have worked on some level because he quickly stood up and raised his hand indecisively as if unsure whether to offer a simple hello or a request to stop. She’d noticed something small and silver that he’d had sitting on one of his legs fall onto the seat when he got up. It looked like jewellery of some kind, a chain or something, and it was now dangling between the slats. Without wanting to, she found herself indicating to him that he had dropped something. He picked it up carefully, and when he turned back to the window he held it up to show her and was mouthing words at her. Thank you? Paint you? Saint Jude? Saint Jude. His medal, she thought. Someone in school had made the joke that only the top drinkers got them. She demonstrated a very ostentatious shrug of indifference and retreated out of sight.

When the doorbell rang to herald the presence of the first guests, she was back in the kitchen in her new top helping Mammy bring out aperitifs of spiced beef and smoked salmon, thick brown soda bread, olives, and prosciutto. Candles had been lit and fragrant oil was burning, spicing the air with notes of cinnamon and orange peel. With coats, hats and scarves discarded, and people moving through the house, it was impossible not to also notice the wafts of perfume and aftershave which, combined with perfectly presented hair and the glossy arrest of festive make-up, ignited the sense of excitement and fun that would sustain them for the rest of the day. Before long, all comers were merrily ensconced in the warmth of their hospitality, and the prelude of first drinks and appetisers had given way to the main event. They were all seated around the large dining room table looking admiringly at the platters of succulent meat and the multiple dishes of aromatic vegetables and sauces. Potatoes done three ways were kept company by large bowls piled high with parsnips, carrots, peas and brussels sprouts. Mammy had done a beautiful chestnut and apricot stuffing, but it was her specialty, a gently spiced bread sauce, that was most commented on. Once plates had been filled and everyone had begun to eat, the wealth of good feeling that came from appetites being sated was palpable across the wine glasses and candelabras that decorated the table. Declan the football hero, sitting across from her and six months away from doing his Leaving Cert, was getting some fairly relentless slagging for being hungover, and he looked and smelled every part of it, but a few looks from Mammy settled people down as they became a bit more mindful that not everyone at the table was celebrating Christmas in the same way. She looked over to where he was sitting a couple of places down the table from Mammy. He was there with a glass of blackcurrant in front of him, eating and talking quietly to his brother-in-law. As her uncle nodded at him, she could hear him say he was between things and was looking forward to putting the year behind him.

They were all surprised when the doorbell went in the middle of the meal, impatiently followed by enthusiastic knocking. Mammy was quickest up and upon the door being opened received a loud cheer from the mystery visitor. She was back in the room directly, arm in arm with the raucous arrival. It was Dev, one of his oldest friends, and also her godfather. Mammy was smiling but she looked startled underneath, as if she had been caught out in some way. Dev pulled her into him and attempted to polka her around the table but there was barely room, so he stopped after a few steps with a flourish of mock completion, greatly encouraged by the laughter of all present. Everyone except Mammy, whose eyes briefly betrayed something steely and not at all friendly. But she concealed it by smoothing down her dress and affectionately calling him a big eejit, which drew merry agreement from everyone else. Mammy sent her to fetch an extra setting and soon Dev was at the table with a mouth full of turkey and wine, regaling the gathering with one story after another, including and implicating him with gestures and nods and occasional back slaps. For his part, he looked subdued and wary, and didn’t appear to be relishing the reappearance of his friend, but nobody else was any less cheerful or engaged in the festive goings on.

A pause after the meal allowed people to circulate more freely, and she had been enjoying the respite of talking to her cousins about their mutual obsessions when the emergence from the kitchen of the desserts brought a fresh chorus of approval from those who were about to partake. Their nostrils were filled with the fruity punch of the plum pudding and the vanilla warmth coming from the jug of hot custard. Proudly placed on the table beside it was the sherry trifle she and Mammy had assembled early that morning in a huge glass dish that showed off the layers of sponge and fruit, custard and thick, peaked cream. For those with less of a sweet tooth, an array of cheeses nestled alongside bunches of succulent red and green grapes which hung over the edges of a generous serving board. Dev was quick to take centre stage, pouring and promptly setting alight the brandy with which he blessed the pudding. The lights had been dimmed to fully appreciate the effect, but what she noticed with a disturbing certainty was the glint of darkness she saw in Dev’s face as it was coloured by the bluish flame. She looked down at the corona of fire dancing around the dessert and was struck uneasily by the thought that some ancient pagan ritual was being reincarnated in their dining room that would see them all consumed in a purgatory blaze of abandon. Dev caught her eye and winked at her knowingly, as if he knew he had just been unmasked. He seemed to take their shared moment as a starter’s pistol for an escalation of mischief because as soon as the lights were back up, he sought out his old friend and thrust a glass of wine in front him, exhorting him to drink. He made no attempt to disguise his actions, putting an arm around him and accusing him of being no craic and asking him if he wouldn’t be happier having a drink and singing an auld song for everyone. An awkward tension descended on the room as the unspoken fear of those present was suddenly given voice.

She looked at him to see what he would do but he had lost what little voice had previously been there. Someone told Dev to go easy and another voice declared sympathetically that he was trying to go off it, but Dev asserted that he knew him better than anyone and that one or two wouldn’t kill him, and in fact they’d do him a world of good. Mammy looked like she could kill Dev, but she stayed very still, as if paralysed by his brazen incursion into her delicately held-together peace. Everyone else continued to throw in their tuppence worth as if he wasn’t even there and she glowered at Dev for his wanton provocation. But then he spoke. He placed a hand on top of the unused wine glass in front of him, looked Dev in the eye, and simply said that that was behind him. There was something in the way he spoke that managed to defuse the situation, and almost as if it hadn’t happened, Dev took a step back, said he hadn’t really meant it, and offered to make him a cup of tea instead. To her amazement, everyone was placated by this concession and they picked up where they left off, eager to resume the merry-making. She saw he and Mammy exchange a look, but she couldn’t tell what passed between them. Distracted momentarily by Declan unsuccessfully trying not to be seen picking his nose, she averted her gaze only to realise Mammy was directing her to the kitchen to make sure Dev had found the teabags.

He was standing with his back to the door waiting for the kettle to boil. The lid was off the tea caddy on the bench and he had two mugs ready to go. Unaware of her presence and not taking the care to look around, he produced from his inside jacket pocket a small bottle of whiskey out of which he deposited a liberal measure into each mug. The kettle sang, the bottle was replaced, and the promised tea was made. By the time he turned around, she was already back at Mammy’s ear, whispering what she had just seen. Dev came into the room holding the mugs out in front of him, announcing they were just what the doctor ordered as he set them down. Mammy remained seated, but she didn’t wait for anything else to unfold. Keeping her hands resting one over the other in front of her on the table, she spoke very deliberately without once raising her head to look at Dev. She declared coolly that he was not welcome in their house, that he was to leave, and that he wasn’t to come back. The smirk dropped from his face as he wrestled with her decree. He cast his eyes about the room in search of an ally, but all he met was silence. Nobody was about to come to his rescue, and when in mild desperation he at last turned to him for some sort of conciliatory gesture, none was forthcoming. He stood there for a moment trying to laugh it off as just a bit of craic, a bit of messing to liven up the sedate conspiracy to which everyone else was so content to subscribe, but the tension that had overtaken the gathering forbade him an easy escape. He tried to get Mammy to look at him, but she wouldn’t, so he instead turned his eyes to her and, rubbing his tongue slowly over his bottom lip once again winked and showed her that flash of darkness she had spotted earlier. Saying he would see himself out, he bowed insincerely and left the room as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Nobody said a thing until they heard the front door open and safely close behind him.

It took a few moments for the room to resettle and after words of support had been extended to him and to Mammy, the previous ebb and flow of conviviality reasserted itself. She watched the adults over the next while approach him at different moments to have a quiet word and offer small comforts. There were pats on the back, handshakes and looks that were full of meaning. She was confused and frustrated by the affection he evoked. She wanted to know what they saw that she couldn’t. While they were all telling him what a great man he was and encouraging him to stick at it, she knew his bag was glued to his side like a faithful dog. It made a lie of his big show of refusing a drink. He was probably counting the seconds till he could drain whatever bottle was in it, and then where would the support be? She’d be damned if she was going to be one handing out pats on the back then.

The evening drew on, and with the desserts and cheeses long since consumed, people were sitting back in their chairs, cheeks rosy and bellies full, joy-worn and happily relaxing into the intimacy of postprandial conversations. A transformation had occurred over the course of the day, which saw their earlier shiny selves replaced by dishevelled impostors. Hats from Christmas crackers sat crumpled on their heads, collars had been loosened and unaccommodating buttons undone, but there was an unmistakable air of contentment in the room. Dev’s transgression had failed to ruin the day, and even though she could see something frayed in Mammy’s expression, she was laughing and enjoying herself. Somebody called out for music, and addressing him, said Dev had been right about one thing and that they needed a song out of him. Orlaith, one of her younger cousins, had distinguished herself in the family by being a very good fiddle player and she was summoned forth to apply further pressure. After a little more cajoling and the evident enthusiasm of an eager audience, he relented and asked what they wanted to hear. There was no hesitation in asking for the Wexford Carol, which was known to be his seasonal party piece. Checking with Orlaith to see if she knew it, she quickly played the first part of it for him before they began properly. An expectant hush had descended on the room and everyone listened wistfully to the slightly mournful air on the fiddle as he started to sing the opening lines. There was silence throughout as he and Orlaith flowed through the rhythmic cadences of the melody and lyrics of the old tune. He sang in a warm baritone voice that allowed him to express himself with a great sensitivity that he didn’t typically show elsewhere. She took herself to the window to listen at a quieter remove, and as she pulled the curtains slightly apart to look up at the night sky, she wondered if a star would ever appear to her to lead her to a place that attracted kings and their gifts. The ending of the song was greeted with heartfelt cheers and applause, but it hurt her to see him tenderly congratulate Orlaith on her beautiful playing. She felt jealous of Orlaith’s ignorance and the luxury her innocence provided him. She stood a bit longer looking out the window before she was called back to the heart of things.

More music and entertainment followed, and for the rest of the night almost everyone contributed a song or two to proceedings, with even the younger ones performing an elaborate synchronised dance that had been obsessing them and their school friends for months. It was well after midnight by the time the final guests had been farewelled and the latch was put on the door. Mammy and she finished clearing the last dishes and glasses from the table and walked into the kitchen to see him standing in the middle of the floor with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. The way he was staring at the bottle gave her that sick feeling in her stomach again. He was transfixed in some sort of private communion and it took Mammy calling his name three times to fetch him back from wherever he had gone. His face was drained of colour when he looked up at them and he stood silently for a few moments as he composed himself. He then looked back at the bottle and with a sharp turn of his wrist removed the cap. Seeing their faces, he said sorry before moving to the sink and pouring the entire bottle down the drain. He sighed heavily and then, turning to Mammy, said one word – Dev. Her head was spinning as she watched Mammy carefully put down what she was carrying, walk over to him and place her hands on his shoulders, where she stared into his eyes and told him that she believed in him and that he could do it. They embraced, and she felt like an intruder observing their moment of intimacy. Not for the first time that day, she knew she was moving in a different world to the adults around her, and the way she kept coming face to face with her naivety made her want to scream. She banged her dishes down on the bench and ran upstairs to her room, where all she could do to comfort herself was curl up in a ball on her bed. Her bedside lamp gave the room a warm pink glow and she allowed the half-light soothe her into a less agitated state. Her exhaustion was slowly nudging her towards sleep and her eyelids had become very heavy when there was a gentle knock on the door. The handle turned and he was standing there asking if he could come in.

He sat down on the end of the bed and she felt his weight remain very still as silence filled the space between them. He had brought his backpack and again let it sit in his lap while they waited. Perhaps sensing that she wasn’t going to be able to stay awake, he ended their standoff by quietly singing to her a verse of O Tannenbaum. They used to sing it together when she was much younger and as he sang it now, she believed it was something more than a mere ploy to get her onside. He wasn’t trying to show her what a lovely singer he was, it felt more like he was reaching out with a tentatively extended hand. She let him finish, thinking she was going to say something, but instead let herself drift towards sleep once more. He placed his hand on her leg and, giving it a little shake, told her he only had a few things to say. She forced herself to sit up and wrapped her arms around her knees to listen. He went straight into an apology that he’d probably been rehearsing all day. He said he was doing his best and that he was going to need her to be patient. He said he couldn’t make any promises, but he was determined to see it through. He continued talking in that vein and it all sounded very nice, but all she could think of was his bag and how everything he was saying meant nothing when she knew there was no part of the day he hadn’t been walking around without a bottle in arm’s reach. She raised her hand and told him to stop. Unsure of anything except her desire for something to be real and concrete and nameable, she blurted out that he was a liar and that she knew what was in his bloody bag. To her surprise, he didn’t deny it straight away, but simply sat looking at her with a confused expression on his face. She repeated her assertion and when he started to ask her what she meant, his feigned ignorance was more than she could bear and she impulsively grabbed his backpack, ripping it open before thrusting her hand inside to settle the matter once and for all. But her bitter triumph was thwarted when she saw there was no bottle inside, only a few items of clothing, some toiletries, and a medium-sized silver picture frame which she now held in her hand.

The photograph in the frame showed him as a much younger man holding a newborn baby in his arms. He bore no resemblance to the person beside her. His face was fresh and unlined, and glowed with pride and love, gazing with disbelieving joy at the tiny entity nestled to his chest. Before she was able to fully process what she was looking at, he asked her if she didn’t recognise herself. He gently took the frame from her and stared at it for a long moment. He looked up at her, back at the frame, and then up at her again. Seeing his eyes full of tears made her suddenly feel fragile and terribly afraid of her own feelings. He was frowning a little, trying not to cry as he showed her the picture frame and pointed to her infant self. He told her she had been so pure and perfect that he had been certain she was nothing less than a miracle. He said when he held her for the first time, he thought he was going to die from love. She was crying herself now as she listened, seeing him with different eyes, hearing him with an unfolding heart. He looked at her again and said simply that he carried that picture with him everywhere because it was the last time he had felt clean. She asked for the frame and examined the photograph closely, trying to understand how she and that baby were the same person. She sat for a long time without speaking as childish thoughts and inadequate responses rolled around her head. Still emotional, he wiped his eyes before standing to lean closer to her. He told her to hang onto the picture for now and then he kissed the top of her head and whispered something into her hair that she couldn’t hear. He took his bag and left the room, shutting the door quietly as he went. She shook slightly as she sighed out what she had been unable to express, but then, looking at the photo, she turned her eyes to where he had just stood and finally gave herself permission to say out loud the name she had used for him ever since she’d been a little girl. She lay down with the picture resting on her chest, closed her eyes, and prayed that Daddy would still be there in the morning.

As she fell into a long, deep sleep, heavy flakes of snow began falling silently from the night sky, laying their peaceful blanket over the whole country, granting an amnesty of purity to all that could be seen, and in doing so, allowing for a brief moment the belief that even in the depth of winter, something truly beautiful could still be found.

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