Christmas day. In any other year, getting out of the house would have been a challenge. When Grandpa Vander Sloot was alive, we always seemed to have one of Mom’s brothers’ families at our house for Christmas. This year everyone had done their own thing. I suppose we could have gone to visit Dad’s family, but we’d visited Grandpa and Grandma Klein in Wyoming last year.
Wyoming is a long drive from Michigan and it doesn’t get any better in the winter.
We stayed home.
On Christmas day it turned out to be just the four of us. After we’d opened presents, gone to church, had dinner, and hung around the house for a while, visiting Haley’s family cottage sounded like a good idea.
It wasn’t terrible to be with my parents, but I’ve heard that the first Christmas without someone who has died is always the hardest. I don’t know if that is really true, but the house did feel empty without him. Even near the end when he seemed to get tired quickly, I could still look over and find him listening. Sometimes he’d smile when he caught me looking.
Around five o’clock, I asked Mom and Dad if they minded if I visited Haley’s family. “It’s really just a big party for the whole neighborhood or whoever comes,” I told them.
Mom and Dad were sitting on the couch in the family room. The TV chattered on unnoticed.
“Haley’s your girlfriend,” she said. “The granddaughter of Chuck McAllister? From Grandpa’s army unit?”
“Right,” I said.
The pause before her reply went longer than I expected. She sighed.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“It’s fine,” Dad said.
“I’ll drive him.” Rachel stood in the doorway between the family room and the kitchen.
“I can drive myself,” I said.
“I know,” she said, “but I’ve got people I’d like to see there too.”
* * *
We were more than halfway to Haley’s family’s cottage when I understood why Mom might be a little distracted. If I were missing Grandpa, she’d be missing her dad and likely remembering her mom too.
I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d realized it while I was still home. I probably would have gone to Haley’s anyway, but I might have said something at least. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have. We weren’t a particularly demonstrative family. We cared for each other, but we weren’t exactly into spontaneous hugs or deep, heartfelt conversations.
Crossing Grand Lake in the dark, it felt like Rachel’s Honda Civic was only car on the road. It wasn’t true, but it felt that way.
“Getting out of the house was a great idea,” Rachel said as she turned on to Herrick Street. “Mom’s been about to cry for most of the day. Maybe with us out of the house she’ll finally be able to do it.”
“Most of the day?” I was less aware than I’d thought.
“Didn’t you notice?”
We followed Herrick Street north for about ten minutes, passing block after block of houses and cottages, trees and snow covered dunes. Past the houses on my left, I could see Lake Michigan, dark lake blending with the dark sky at an unseen horizon.
Haley’s family cottage glowed in the night. Christmas lights hung outside, red and green, outlining the porch. Cars parked on both sides of the street in front of the house.
“Just as busy as ever,” Rachel said, slowing to look for an open space.
“You’ve been here before?”
“Just once, a couple years ago, but I’ve heard about it.”
She managed to find a spot. We were just across the street from the garbage executive from Chicago’s house. A few lights were on there and I could see tracks in the snow on the driveway.
Rachel grabbed her purse from the car and I pulled my guitar case out of the back seat and slung it across my back.
“When did you start playing guitar?”
“I don’t. It’s a guitar controller. It works with Rock Band and Guitar Hero.”
“You’re not seriously expecting to play video games?”
“It also blows things up.”
“And here I thought you were no fun.”
We walked up the steps to the front door. I could hear Christmas music and people talking already. I raised my hand to knock.
“Just walk in,” Rachel said. “They’ll never hear you anyway.”
She put her hand on the doorknob and opened the door.
It looked nothing like it had the last time I was there. Christmas decorations hung everywhere. The whole, massive room that took up most of the first floor seemed to be full of people talking, eating, drinking and laughing. Food covered the tables. “A Christmas Story” played on the television.
At first, I didn’t recognize anybody — too many people and too much noise. Then I heard Haley.
“Nick, you came!”
She hugged me and we held each other for a little while.
When we stopped, she said, “I can take your coats and your…” She looked up at the guitar case, “thing.”
In a lower voice, she asked, “It’s not really nuclear powered, is it?”
“No,” I said, “I couldn’t find any uranium.”