It must’ve been at least three in the morning when the cab pulled up in front of the huge white Colonial house. It was dark out, the stars and moon were dull in the sky. They had lit up the snow earlier in the evening and early morning but now they seemed to have almost flickered out. The white fence that surrounded the front yard blended into the darkness. I snatched the duffel bag off of the seat next to me and slung it over my shoulder, stopping only to grab some cash from my pocket for the meter.
“Keep the change,” I told the cab driver as I threw open the door. The air inside the cab was warm, generated heat from the car’s heater. It felt fake and stuffy, and after an hour of being inside of the small taxi I wanted to get out even more then I had when I had gotten in at the airport.
“Sir, the change is forty dollars!” The cabbie called to me from the window. I shut the back door and came to the open passenger side window. I smiled at him and patted the window, turning towards the house, suitcase in hand and my shoulder no longer aching from the weight of the duffel.
“Merry Christmas, Mister!” The cabbie called out in a shocked voice, almost joyfully. He started to pull away quietly.
“Merry Christmas,” I whispered stopping at the fence to stare up at the massive white structure. A grin spread across my face, I was home.
I unlatched the gate and dashed up the sloshy sidewalk. The only sign left that we had had a blizzard was the slush that covered the yard. The grass was wet and muddy, the walkway had probably been icy. I figured a neighbor must’ve salted it for my wife because there were salt grains everywhere. The snow that was left on the edges of the yard was spread out in patches and was very dirty, not at all like I had left it.
I stuck my key in the door and turned it, opening the door gently and closing it quietly behind me. I put my suitcase down on the floor and locked the door silently. I didn’t even bother to hang up my jacket or take off my boots before grabbing the suitcase again and dashing up the stairs as quietly as possible.
The first door I saw was my eldest daughter’s. The light was off and she probably went to bed before eight just so if Santa Claus came early she’d be asleep already. I was bursting with excitement but kept it contained as I slunk silently into her dark bedroom. I left the suitcase near the door along with my duffel bag and knelt down next to her bed. She looked so peaceful sleeping there, her head turned to the right and some of her blonde hair draped over her cheek. Her eyelids were moving. I wondered what she was dreaming about.
Very carefully I reached over and brushed the hair out of her eyes. I had forgotten how small she was. I leaned over and kissed her cheek softly. I thought I would be able to get away with kissing her goodnight un-noticed so I started to get up off the floor, but stopped mid-way when I heard her voice.
Zoë’s head turned towards me, her eyelids fluttering open. I got back down on my knees. She blinked into the darkness a few times almost as though she didn’t recognize me. “No honey,” I said softly. “It’s-”
“Daddy!” Zoë cried throwing her arms around my neck. She pulled her small legs close to me so that I wound up holding her in my lap.
“Yes, baby,” I responded, hugging her back tightly. I kissed the back of her head, “Daddy’s home.” I stood up and sat down on my daughter’s bed, allowing her to stay in my lap with her legs out towards the foot of the bed. “So did Santa come yet?” I asked her. “Have I missed him?”
Zoë looked worried. “Daddy, Santa’s not going to skip our house because I’m awake is he?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I told her in a matter-of-fact voice, “but you know what I think?”
“I think that Santa knows you’ve been a good girl all year and he also knows that I haven’t see my baby girls in a week.” I nodded and leaned my forehead against hers. “So I think that Santa knew I was coming home at this time so he made sure to get here first.”
Zoë giggled and agreed with me. She sat up and turned so she was leaning against my chest. “I missed you,” she said.
“I missed you, too, Zoë Marie, but now it’s time for bed.” I picked her up and slid her down under her covers, pulling the comforter up to her neck. I knelt down on the floor and smiled at my eldest.
“Daddy can you tell me a story?”
“Will you go to sleep after?”
“What story do you want to hear?” I reached up and flicked on the lamp next to her bed. A warm glow filled the area where we were and stretched across the room, the light fading into the shadows as it got further away from its source.
Zoë leaned over to the other side of her bed taking her bedding along with her. “Careful,” I warned as the comforter stretched with her. I held a corner of the blanket so it wouldn’t turn the wrong way because then Zoë would make me spend at least ten minutes straightening it back to its normal position, darker pink on top, lighter on the bottom. It usually took me ten minutes to make it right again because both pinks looked the same to me. But both Zoë and her mother always informed me that I was wrong, there was a lighter pink and that was the bottom side, no doubt about it. Once again enforcing the fact that as the only man in the household I couldn’t know pink from... pink.
“Read me this one, Daddy,” Zoë said happily, returning to her pillow, book in hand.
“OK, what do we have here?” I took the book and flipped it right side up. “The Berenstain Bears: And The Spooky Old Tree.” I held the familiar book in my hands and opened it carefully. It was old, almost 25 years old.
“Grandma sent them to Anya and me,” Zoë explained. I looked up at her, a wide grin on my face. “She said you used to read them to Aunt Jessie, Aunt Avie, Uncle Mack, and Aunt Gen.” I nodded and looked back down at the book. “Mommy read me three of them already. We were going to read this one tomorrow. She read one every night since we got them in the mail from the mailman.”
I flipped to the first page of the book after the title page. There in a four year old’s handwriting underneath the printed words “This Berenstain Bear’s book belongs to:” was my own name, written more than 20 years ago.
“Grandma said that before you read them to Aunt Jessica that she read them to you.”
I nodded and looked back up at my daughter, nostalgia washing over me. “She did,” I confirmed. “I learned to read these books by myself when I was your age.” I shifted myself closer to her head and got comfortable on the floor. I laughed as I read the old familiar story to Zoë, noticing some jokes I had never noticed before within the pages of the children’s book. I had the tendency as a child to draw in my books, and chuckled to myself when I spotted some characters on a page that were drawn in with a pencil, clearly my own work. I never left a book untouched, even if it was only on one page. My pencil and I were a team.
Towards the end of the book Zoë was yawning constantly, her eyes closing for a few minutes at a time. “The End,” I read, closing the book and putting it on the dresser. “Now, it’s bed time.” I kissed Zoë’s cheek. My daughter yawned and didn’t open her eyelids. I reached up and flicked off the reading lamp. “Merry Christmas, Zoë.”
I stood and picked up my suitcase and duffel bag from the floor near the doorway. I was about to leave Zoë’s room when I heard her tired voice speaking from the bed. “Thank you, Santa,” she was whispering into the darkness. “Thank you for bringing me Daddy for Christmas.” I took a deep breath and exited Zoë’s room. I figured I better wait till the sun rose before visiting Anya. She’d never fall asleep after being woken up so close to dawn.
I felt arms around my neck the moment I closed the bedroom door behind me. I smiled and dropped my suitcase to the floor once again, accepting a soft kiss that was planted on my lips. “I saw the light on,” Clare said softly when we broke away. She reached up and stroked the side of my face gently. “I heard you reading to her.” Clare pulled herself into me, her stomach making it hard to accomplish but not impossible. “Taylor I knew it had to have been you that was making the babies move.”
“What do you mean?” I asked her.
“The babies woke me up about 30 minutes ago, that’s when I saw the light in the hallway. I came down here to tell Zoë to go back to sleep or Santa will pass over the house but then I heard your voice.” She hugged me tighter. “The only voice I ever wanted to hear.” She giggled nervously. “Jordan, I thought you weren’t going to be able to come home for the holidays.”
“Not come home?” I asked her, reaching down for my suitcase and duffel, “that’s absurd.” I put my arm around her waist and walked into our bedroom. “I would have swam home if I had to.” I kissed her forehead and kicked off my boots, tossing my jacket and sweater over a chair in the room. “Nothing could ever keep me from you.” I pulled off my shirt and threw it with my other layers. “I’m beat,” I told her falling onto my side of the bed. Clare climbed in next to me and rested her head on my shoulder. “Incredibly... beat.”