Seeing her son’s face in the living room window as she returned to the house, Janine smiled and waved a gloved hand. Marty made no response. He looked glum. He rested his chin in his cupped hands. When she entered the door, still smiling as she stamped her feet and shook the fine powder from her hat and coat, he gave her only a cursory glance before turning back to the window. Janine, watching him a moment, frowned.
“Cold out there,” she said, adopting her cheerful manner again. “Look, Marty, I got one.”
Marty turned his head again and looked at what she had carried into the house with her.
“Where’d you get that?” he said in a dull voice. “It’s plastic. Last year we had a real tree.”
“Well, we can’t have a real tree this year, Marty, can we? This one will look just as good once we decorate it.”
“What about the lights?”
“Lights?” Janine bit her lip. She had not considered this. “Well, we’ll think of something.”
Marty sighed and turned back to the window, gazing forlornly out at the day. Janine thought a moment, then walked to the window and stood behind her son.
“Come on, Marty, cheer up. It’s Christmas Day tomorrow.”
“I wish Dad were here.”
Janine’s lip trembled. She thought she might cry. Instead, she took a deep breath and reminded herself that she had to stay cheerful. She had to stay cheerful for Marty’s sake.
“I wish Dad were here too, but he’s not so we’ll just have to make the best of it.”
“And Granddad and Grandma. They won’t be coming this year either, will they?”
“No,” Janine said. “It’ll just be the two of us. But we’re going to have so much fun.”
Suddenly he faced her, his face stricken. “And what about Santa?”
“Of course Santa will come.”
“He won’t! I know he won’t! How could he?”
He turned back to the window, now anxiously scanning the skyline. Janine, unable to think of anything she could say that would comfort him, carried the plastic Christmas tree to the corner of the room and began to unfold its branches. Dusk was settling outside, and the room had grown dark. Soon she would have to light some candles.
“Marty, want to help me decorate the tree?”
“Come on, Marty, we always used to decorate it together, remember?”
“I don’t want to.”
“But it’ll be fun if you just…”
“No!” he said, rounding on her. “It’s not Christmas! It’s not Christmas!”
“Of course it is!”
Beyond him, through the window, she noticed fat flakes drifting down out of the sky.
“Look it’s snowing again!”
Marty was quiet a moment. He was silhouetted against the window, just a dark shape, and she could not see his face. Then he spoke in a low voice, full of contained anger.
“Don’t say that.”
“But it is. It’s snowing. Look. Just look.”
“Stop saying that.”
“But you’re not looking. If you just turn your head you’ll see…”
“You’re a liar!”
Janine was stunned. She heard him stifle a sob. When he spoke again, she could tell he was trying very hard to control his emotions.
“What’s it like out there, Mum?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“What’s it like out there?”
Janine laughed. It sounded false, even to her. “Well, you know. You can see, can’t you? You’ve been at the window all this time.”
“Can I go out?”
“I…I don’t think that’s a very good idea. Now…”
“I want to go out.”
“Look, why don’t we decorate the tree? Then we can have some…”
“I want to go out, Mum. I haven’t been outside for days and days. I want to go out.”
“Well, you can’t!” Janine snapped, surprising herself with her own anger. “And I know your Dad’s not here, or Grandma and Granddad, and we can’t have a real tree or lights, and we won’t have turkey either, but it is Christmas and now it’s snowing and I just want us to enjoy it, okay?”
Marty was silent. She tried hard to make out his face in the gloom but she couldn’t do it. He turned his head, staring at the window a moment, then looked back at her.
“You’re a liar.” His voice was subdued now.
“Don’t say that, Marty. Don’t talk to me like that. I’m your mother.”
“Then don’t tell me it’s snowing when it’s not.”
“But it is! You can see that it is!”
“That’s not snow, Mum,” he said. “You know it’s not.”
“Well if it’s not snow, what is it?”
“You know what it is.”
“Do I? Do I really?”
“Yes. You just don’t want to say it.”
“What is it then, clever-clogs?”
“It’s ashes, Mum. It’s just more ashes.”