It is 5:42 am Christmas morning when the young man’s bedroom door creaks open and he hears his brother’s voice.
“Yeah, bro. Come on in.”
“Think I should wake up Ruthanne?”
“It’s tradition, right?”
Stephen disappears, then reappears a minute later with Ruthanne.
“I was up already,” she says. “Just didn’t know if y’all would be.”
“Can’t break tradition now,” the young man says.
He is sitting against his headboard. Stephen hops onto the bed and pushes up against the wall.
Ruthanne sits on the old brown couch on the other side of the old coffee table.
“Do you need a lane for pacing, Stephen?” she asks with a smile. He used to do that—pace around the coffee table the last ten minutes before six am.
“I feel as excited as ever, but nah. I can sit still now.”
They fall quiet for several long moments. Finally, Stephen says, “I can’t believe you’re in college. I can’t believe you’ve been there for a semester already.”
“Me neither,” the young man says. “Can’t believe we are this old. Freaking Ruthanne is in high school.”
“You’ll probably be on your mission next year,” Stephen says.
“It may not be like this ever again,” Stephen says.
“Yeah,” says Ruthanne. “Stephen will be a senior when you go, and then he’ll go to college and maybe a mission while you’re gone.”
Stephen fidgets. “I don’t even know why I still get this excited for Christmas. I don’t need anything. I’m not excited for me. I’m excited for all y’all to see what I got you.”
“Yeah,” says the young man. “Plus, I just like being together. Just our family.”
“Certain things have to be there every year,” says Ruthanne. “Books for dad plus a can of peanuts and a box of cherry chocolates.”
“I got dad a book,” says Stephen.
“Me too,” says the young man.
“Me three,” says Ruthanne. “That will thrill mom—add to the pile by the bed.”
“Mom is the best to buy gifts for,” Stephen says. “She loves everything, and she gets so excited.”
“For sure,” says the young man. “I got her a bracelet this year.”
“Mom is out of Chanel number 5, so I got that for her,” says Ruthanne.
“I got her some CZ earrings,” says Stephen.
“And then it’s naps and ham and potatoes,” says the young man.
“I wish we did something besides ham,” says Stephen. “I hate ham.”
“I think mom actually bought a small chicken for you,” says Ruthanne.
“Really? That’s awesome.”
They grow quiet again and look at the clock: 5:56.
“Why don’t we go?” says the young man. “By the time we get them up and they get moving, it’ll be past six.”
“I’m good with that,” says Stephen.
Ruthanne stands and moves out first, then Stephen. The young man follows but pauses as he gets ready to shut off his bedroom light. None of it has happened yet. He cannot picture any of it. His father’s diagnosis is nine years away. He cannot foresee listening to the police helicopters every night over Glendale or to the automatic weapons in East LA or to the old couple in the next apartment in Alhambra that fight every night as the old man cusses out his wife and degrades her. He does not know how commonplace murder is, how many young men commit it, then go on to get married, get jobs, and have families. He has never imagined what it is to be the parent of a murder victim, so he cannot fathom what it will be to sit with parents who have lost their children to such violence. He has no idea he will stand over dead husbands as their wives are informed of their deaths, that he will race to the home of people stricken by a plane crash, that he will visit sex offenders in prison once a month during spells, that he will visit emergency rooms where the suicidal have gone, that he will help parents find runaway children, that he will watch his father die of bone pain because his cancer eats everything from his shins to his spine to his shoulder blades. He has never heard of any pandemic except the Black Plague, does not realize he will live through one where four people he knows will die and many others will go to the brink of death while others in his network will call it all a hoax.
He cannot imagine any of this, but he knows, in about ten minutes, his family will settle into the front room with the Christmas lights on and the overhead lights off. The packages are waiting—the books, bracelets, earrings, sweaters, jackets, belts, socks, candy, and everything else that tangibly signifies their bond. All the rest of the world will be absent. That last moment, before the lights are flipped on, before the stockings and first presents are distributed … he knows this will be the last moment ever just like that for all of them before everything will change. That moment is perfect. He wishes he could linger here, keep that moment from coming because when it arrives, it passes all too quickly, and excitement and anticipation all fade, and even at eighteen, he knows how short time is.
He takes a deep breath and smells the noble fir in the front room.
“Dude, come on,” says Stephen.
He switches off the light and shuts his bedroom door.