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Natalie Carter stood at the windows of her family's fifteenth floor apartment. Below, the city bustled with life and motion, even on Christmas night. Her family had criticized her for not leaving New York to go to school, but why would she ever want to? This was the only city that felt truly alive.
She flinched at her sister's voice and turned away from the window. Caroline stood with her daughter on one hip and a smile plastered on her very red lips. She laughed that brittle, fractured laugh that she always did when annoyed. "We're getting ready to open the gifts. Care to join us?"
Natalie nodded but didn't move to join the family in the middle of the living room. Instead, she folded her arms over her chest and said, "I was looking for Christopher. I thought he might show up."
"He hasn't shown up for a family function in three years. You think he'd make an exception now?" Caroline rolled her eyes and moved back to where the Christmas tree stood. Natalie had had to squelch her disappointment upon seeing it. It was quite obvious that Mother had hired a decorator to put it up. It blended too well into the understated elegance of the rest of the apartment, all crimson and white. Natalie preferred the erratic chaos of the tree she and her roommates had put up the day after Thanksgiving. Of course, she'd never voice these things to her family.
Dad was pouring another round of drinks from the bar. He raised a glass of Scotch in her direction. "Thirsty, Nat?"
With a shake of her head, Natalie declined the drink. "Not now, Dad."
He nodded and returned to his task. Caroline took a seat next to her husband andcalled out, "I'll take a martini if you're playing bartender, Daddy."
Natalie tuned out the banter between her father and sister, choosing instead to stare out again at the city below, frosted with snow and glowing with colored lights strung in windows and over the awnings of buildings. In the window's reflection, Natalie could see her mother staring blankly at the Christmas tree. No doubt she was enveloped in another Valium-induced fog tonight. Natalie bit back a sigh and stared down at the people slipping out of cabs and ducking into the various shops that filled the first floors of the buildings to pick up a few last-minute gifts.
In a booming voice, Dad said, "Who wants presents?" The little ones leapt up and down with excitement as he passed out the drinks and settled into the role of Santa Claus. Natalie turned to watch him as he dug beneath the tree and brought out a series of exquisitely wrapped boxes that would be so much garbage once the prizes within were revealed. After the children had piles of presents as tall as themselves in front of each of them, Dad started dispensing gifts to the adults.
As he gave Caroline and Richard their presents, Natalie took a seat away from her mother, alone on a pristine white sofa. Her mother only smiled in a daze as the children opened their gifts with cries of excitement.
"And, for my youngest daughter, I have a very special treat this year." Dad faced her, his eyes glittering as he held out a long, thin box towards her.
"Dad, you didn't have to get me anything. You're already sending me to Europe this summer."
"Ridiculous. Everyone needs something to open on Christmas." Dad dropped the box into her lap and turned back to the tree. Natalie picked at the wrapping paper.
Within was a blue velvet case imprinted with the unmistakable monogram of her father's favorite jeweler. Natalie looked up and said, "You guys didn't have to... This is too much."
Caroline looked up from her own gifts and said, with an edge of impatience to her voice, "Oh, for God's sake, just open it."
Natalie glanced at her mother. For a moment, just a split second, she seemed completely aware. The moment passed, and Natalie looked away to hide the tears that stung in her eyes. She popped open the top of the box. Nestled within was a gleaming silver charm bracelet. Natalie's breath caught, and she murmured, "It's gorgeous!"
Three charms dangled from the chain as Natalie lifted the bracelet out of the box and into the light. The first was a tiny sword set with a ruby chip. Another was a star made of topaz. The gems caught the light and turned it into fire that showed they were real. The last charm was a small silver heart inlaid with tiny diamonds. Natalie traced her fingers over the charms. "It's perfect."
Her dad grinned and said, "The salesperson tried to persuade me to buy a little ballerina instead of a sword."
"I took three weeks of ballet. And hated every minute of it." Everyone laughed, even Mother. Her eyes were clear, her smile far from her usual befuddled grin. For a perfect, sweet moment, Natalie knew that, despite the pain that had been and the pain that would come, they were still a family. The only thing that would have been better was to have Christopher there, but Natalie knew when she was asking too much.
Natalie clasped the bracelet around her wrist. There was a knock on the door, and she looked up, her heart thudding hard in her chest. She stood and stared at the door as her father moved to answer it. It was Christopher. It had to be. Who else would come knocking at seven o'clock on Christmas Eve? Just before her father's fingertips brushed the doorknob, the entire frame caved in and shattered into splinters under enormous pressure. She stared at the broken door without understanding. Then one of the children began to scream.
• • •
The flickering screens of half a dozen televisions radiated color and light through the thick glass of a department store window. Jason stopped to light a cigarette and glanced towards the screens. Every one displayed a different Christmas special. As bells rang, angels got wings, and Rudolph led the sleigh through the snow, Jason used the light from the window to fumble for his lighter.
Copyright © 2007 by Crista Rucker.