Downstairs, the Christmas tree in the corner of the small living room was still lit, casting a warm glow. Jess and her mom must have left it on for some reason when they got home. A few shimmering packages were already stashed underneath. Seeing the presents, she fingered the small horseshoe dangling around her neck. It was the perfect present from the perfect guy. She smiled in the dark and walked over to the tree to shut off the lights.
“Leave it on.”
Cory stopped on the spot. The shadowy outline of her mom sitting in the armchair was partially obscured by the tree. Cory waited and said nothing.
“I like the light. I like to look at it. Looks good, don’t you think?” Her mom turned her face toward Cory.
“Yeah, Mom, it looks great.”
Roni’s eyes glistened in the electric light. She turned her attention back to the tree.
“When you were kids, we used to wait till Christmas Eve to light up the tree. Do you remember that?”
Cory took a breath, realizing she’d been holding it. She nodded in the dark.
“Robert wanted it that way. He said that was what his family did when they were kids.”
Cory stared at her mom’s profile, studying it for the telltale mouth droop or slur of difficult words. Instead, tonight her voice was calm, and her words came out clear and precise. She edged toward the sofa to perch on its arm. Ice cubes shifted in the glass in her mom’s hand.
“Why are you up, Mom?” Her voice sounded small in the silence of the house.
“Just licking my wounds. Again.”
Cory sat still. She heard a deep sigh. Glancing toward the kitchen, she debated the wisdom of getting her glass of water and disappearing upstairs. She didn’t want to hear any more about her mother’s wounds. It was the first Christmas since Dad left. But there was something different about her mother tonight. Her stillness. The constant anger that surrounded her like a cloud, radiating off her skin, was not there. Instead, she looked like a marble statue of a woman—still and white, staring out at the night. Cory imagined the face illuminated by the window candle would be cold and smooth to the touch. A bead of water ran down the forgotten glass in her hand. Cory slid from the arm of the couch down to the seat and wrapped the afghan around her.
“Aren’t you freezing, Mom?” She noted her mother’s open robe and thin nightgown underneath. Her mother made no indication she heard Cory.
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