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Taylor stared at the outstretched hand for a minute. Then he surprised us. He didn’t take the hand—instead he walked into Daddy’s arms and hugged him. Daddy stood still for a second like he didn’t know what to do. Then he wrapped his arms around Taylor in a tight bear hug, the kind that squeezes the breath right out of me. That’s when Taylor began to cry. I’ve never seen my big brother cry, not even when he fell from a tree and broke his leg.

My mama pushed me back and closed the door, giving the men their privacy. She had tears in her eyes, too. And to be honest, I shed a few myself.

When Taylor came out of his room again, he’d done as Daddy asked. He was shaved, showered, and dressed. He looked handsome and Mama told him so, several times. She and I stood on the porch and watched as they took off for the dock, matching long strides down the narrow road. Oaks bordered both sides of the road beneath a gray sky with low-lying clouds. Leafless shrubs and yellowed grass clustered in their scrubby, wiry winter garb. It was a crisp December day. Two weeks until Christmas. We stood side by side and watched until they disappeared from view at the bend of the road.

Mama lifted her chin and sniffed the air. “Smells like rain,” she announced, then looked at me to see if I agreed.


“All right, then.” She tapped the railing. “I’ll open up those windows and give that room a good airing out.” Her eyes gleamed with anticipation.

Mama approached Taylor’s room with the relish of a starving man before a feast. She donned her apron and rubber gloves, tied back her hair, and turned up the music. My mother is a force of nature when it comes to housecleaning. She put me to work carrying out baskets of dirty laundry, dirty dishes to the sink, and bags of garbage to the curb. She opened the curtains and windows wide and brought in buckets of hot soapy water. The wind whistled as it carried away the stench of depression from the room. I heard my mama hum as she scrubbed the floor, then sprayed the windows and washed them inside and out till they gleamed. By the time she was done, my brother’s bedroom smelled like the great pine woods—and was about as cold. Finally she closed the windows again.

She removed the rubber gloves and held them dripping at her sides while she surveyed her handiwork. I knew that all that backbreaking work she’d done for Taylor was her gift to him. I reckoned Taylor might not see it that way now. But someday he would and be thankful. I was right proud of all she’d done. I turned to look at her face and saw hope shining in her eyes that the spotlessness of the room would somehow help to clean out whatever was mucking up Taylor’s mind. She sighed, went out, and returned a moment later with a glass vase filled with clove-studded oranges, pinecones, and sprigs of fresh pine. “The finishing touch,” she said, and smiled at me. Her face was so pretty, wreathed in all that hope and joy and love.

I had to smile back. Because that’s what happens when the spirit of Christmas hits you. It’s contagious.

The next day the rain that my mother had predicted fell in torrents. And Taylor’s door was closed again.

I came home early from school because we were on exam schedule before the Christmas break. Even though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon, the sky was dark gray and a rare winter thunder rolled ominously in the clouds. I ran from the bus into the house, but I still got drenched. I took off my shoes and coat and dumped them in the front hall, then hurried to the kitchen, where the smell of fresh-baked cookies warmed the air.

“Cookies!” I exclaimed as I followed my nose to the kitchen table, where rows of them cooled on waxed paper. My mother’s almond crescent cookies. My favorites.

“Those are for the cookie swap,” she warned me.

“I don’t want those other ladies’ cookies,” I whined. “I only want yours. You make the best.”

She smiled smugly and shook her head. “You ought to go into politics.” She tossed me a dish towel. “Dry your hair.”

I smirked as I watched her make me a plate. She served it to me with a glass of milk.

“Take this to your brother, will you?”

My brother? She’d said it so casually, but I heard the tension in her voice. She was asking me to do what she was either afraid or unable to do herself. No amount of coaxing . . . or cookies . . . would lure him out.

“What about my cookies?” I felt ignored. I was tired of Taylor getting all the attention.

“Come back and I’ll have your plate ready.”

My mama ran a hard deal. “Is his door open?”

“No,” she said lightly, looking into the oven at the cookies baking. “But it’s a good excuse to get him out again.” She rose and turned to look at me with a smile. “Don’t you think?” she asked brightly.

I pretended that I bought it. “If your cookies don’t do the trick, nothing will. But what a Grinch,” I added under my breath as I slid off my chair. Grabbing the plate, I headed upstairs. He was just my brother, I told myself. A grumpy, lazy, kind-of-crazy brother, but my brother nonetheless. So why did I feel so nervous?

At his closed door, I thought of the chapter in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge saw his door knocker morph into the face of his old, and dead, business partner, Marley. Kind of gave me the shivers. To be honest, I was angry at my brother because I hoped that after Daddy and he went out to the boat together things would change. They’d get back to normal around here. But Taylor was back behind his closed door and we were all acting weird again. He might have been hurt by a bomb, but he made this house like a minefield for the rest of us.

I shifted the cookies and knocked. There was no answer. I tried again, harder this time. Still no answer. Now I was mad. I was getting bored with his act. I looked at the plate of my mother’s famous almond cookies and, angry, stuffed one in my mouth.

“I got some cookies for you,” I called out, taunting him with my mouth full. “And they’re real good. If you don’t open the door, I’m gonna eat them all.”

“Go away.”

What a jerk, I thought. If Daddy could barge in, so could I. I pushed open the door and walked in. It smelled bad again, cigarettes and stale food and body odor. He had his bedside lamp turned on so I saw him sitting on the side of his bed, with his back to me. His arm jerked when I walked in as he hid something under the blanket. I immediately felt weird, like I was barging in on something private.