[Blank] Christmas

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Blurb

Genre:
Drama / Other
Author:
Emily Woodcock
Status:
Work in progress
Chapters:
16
Rating:
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:
13+

Adeste Fidelis

Something clattered against the door, followed by bellowed orders in her sister’s usual dulcet tones. With a groan of disappointment, knowing full well that Lisa never tolerated lie-ins, Elle rolled out of bed.

Stopping outside her room she picked up the spatula that Lisa had thrown in lieu of a polite knock from off the floor and carried it back into the kitchen, dutifully pecking her sister’s cheek as she passed.

“Where’s Mark?” She asked, sliding onto a stool at the counter, watching Lisa stir the eggs around the pan.

“Getting ready for school.” Lisa replied, tapping the spoon loudly against the edge of the pan before tossing it into the sink. Elle watched resignedly as a bit of scrambled egg splattered onto the cupboards as it sailed through the air.

“Now. I have eggs, toast and we have ham left over in the fridge. What do you want?”

“Cereal.” She replied, automatically moving her hand towards the edge of the counter where her cereal used to be kept before remembering that Lisa had moved it during one of her helpful phases.

Unfazed, Lisa piled eggs onto the three plates already set out on the counter.

“Marcus!” She shouted into Elle’s ear just as she was leaning over her setting. Elle flinched away from the sound.

“Be right there, Mom.” An equally loud yell replied.

“Please tell me there’s coffee.” Elle groaned, brushing at an unruly curl that kept falling into her eye.

“There is.” Lisa supplied. “But you can make it yourself. The smell of that stuff turns my stomach.”

Slipping off her seat, her bare feet touched the worn linoleum just as Mark skidded into the kitchen. Grabbing him by his waist, Elle used his lack of balance to pull her nephew into her side, pressing as loud a kiss as she could manage onto the top of his head.

Aunt Elle!” He moaned, wiping his forehead with disgust.

“Morning.” She beamed, before continuing to the cupboard where the coffee used to be. “Lisa, I can’t find anything in this kitchen anymore.”

“Right cupboard, over the stove.” Lisa said, taking a seat next to her son. She placed a restraining hand over his fork, stopping him from diving into his food. “What do we say first?”

“Thank you, Mom.” Mark said, his words accompanied by a cheek splitting grin.

“Honestly, sometimes I think a pack of wild wolves raised you.” Lisa admonished.

They had the same conversation every morning.

Elle set the water boiling and glanced back at her family, who were now shovelling their food away at an impressive rate. Moving over to the windowsill, she flicked on the radio to drown out the sounds of cutlery scraping the plate far louder than required.

They kept it tuned to the same station but today it was all talk about the upcoming holiday, rather than playing the usual chart hits. Elle was fast to turn the dial and search for something else to listen to.

The next channel had Christmas pop.

The one after that was a classical station playing Christmas carols.

After much tuning, she found some mindless chart hits. She turned the volume down until it played unobtrusively in the background.

“You remember Marcus breaks off from school today, right?” Lisa asked as she took a sip of water.

“Yeah.” Elle replied, moving to put a heaped spoonful of sugar in her cup.

“So, you have a busy day?”

“Depends what I’m assigned.”

“Well I was going decorate the apartment today. Marcus only has a half day at school so we’ll put the tree up later this afternoon. You could join us.”

“Yeah, and theoretically jackalopes could exist. But they don’t.” Elle said frankly. “Besides, I don’t have Christmas decorations.”

“I went and fetched mine out of storage.” Lisa replied, pursing her lips to stop a smirk forming. “Come on. We should do this as a family. Marcus would love to have his Aunt Nellie’s help.”

Don’t call me that.” Elle said sternly, putting the milk back in the refrigerator.

“Well, I could call you...”

No.”

She really missed living alone.

Pressing her back against the refrigerator to shut it, Elle sighed as she found Lisa’s narrowed eyes trained on her. “Fine. I’ll see if I can get away early this afternoon. Just, don’t go mad. With the decorating. Please? I saw your house last year, I don’t want my apartment to look like that.”

“I don’t go mad.” Lisa sniffed.

“It’s a miracle those Christmas lights didn’t give someone a seizure.” Elle said lightly.

She poked Mark lightly in the side where she knew he was ticklish as she sat at the counter beside him. Her coffee was now firmly in hand and she was determined not to cave to whatever her sister’s mad ideas were for decorating her apartment.

“Our house was subdued compared to the rest of the neighbourhood.”

I remember. I had to wear my sunglasses when I drove down the street. Didn’t someone drive into a tree because they were so bright?”

“That was a fluke.” Lisa brushed off, waving her hands around emphatically. “The water on the road reflected the lights back. It doesn’t usually rain in December.”

“I rest my case.”

“There is no case. Besides, I can’t hang lights outside this place.”

“I’m not bothered about outside. I don’t see the outside given I’m either in the apartment or at work. I worry about the inside.”

Lisa turned her back on Elle as she continued to protest, picking up Mark’s empty plate and putting it in the sink for washing. “Baby, go get ready for school. Remember, you don’t have to wear uniform today.”

“Okay.”

Elle dug into her eggs while Lisa watched Mark’s progress, not speaking until the bedroom door closed behind him. The glare returned.

“Please ease up on the Christmas hating. This is Mark’s first Christmas since the separation, I want this to go well.”

“Joe’s coming for Christmas. In fact he’s getting here tomorrow, isn’t he?”

Apparently. But it’s not the same, we don’t live in the same house anymore. This is a lot for Mark. The least we can do is put up the decorations and keep our family traditions.”

“In that case, why don’t you wait for Joe to arrive so he can help decorate the tree?” Elle tried, the dishes clattering together as she added hers to the growing stack in the sink.

“I’m trying my best for Mark but I’m no saint.” Lisa huffed. “Can you please try?”

“I told you, I’ll try to get away, but it depends what story I’m assigned. Hopefully it’ll be more decent than that bumper parsnip harvest I had to report on last year.”

Lisa frowned. “How’s that Christmas themed?”

“Christmas dinners.” Elle said by way of explanation. She remembered asking her editor that exact same question when he’d first assigned it. The cheaper the crop, the cheaper the meal was the only reply she had received.

“Right. Well if you’re not here, there won’t be anyone to stop me going overboard.” Lisa threatened, moving over to the sink and filling it up with water.

Lisa. Please don’t go over the top. I want Marcus to be happy here. I really do – I mean he’s my only nephew, of course I want him to be happy. But, this is still my apartment. It needs to be liveable, okay. I can’t eat, sleep, and work in Santa’s grotto.”

“Go get ready for work. And mind the boxes in the hall.” Lisa said, staying focused on the dishes.

Dressing in her usual black trousers and white shirt, Elle pulled on her parka and crossed through the apartment.

“Bye, Marcus.” She called out, her voice failing to reach the eardrum shattering levels her sister and nephew could manage. “Bye, Lisa.”

“Have a good day.”

“Bye.”

Smiling at their standard responses, Elle opened the door into the hallway and immediately stubbed her toe on a large cardboard box ominously marked ‘Christmas Decorations #3’. It was evidently a forewarning for what the day had in store for her, a conclusion Elle came to the instant she stepped into the office.

The newly decorated space had Elle in a dour mood before she reached her desk. She shuddered slightly as she took in the newly tinselled ceiling and the bauble laden tree standing above several boxes of fake presents. The ever present tide of red, gold, blue, silver and green that flowed throughout the floor made the backs of her eyes pulse.

In the bullpen there was gaudy tinsel tacked along the top of the grey office dividers, felt gingerbread men stuck next to each person’s desk and the ceiling tiles had been lifted to hold red ribbons finished with striped shiny baubles, that looked odd and lonely due to their random placement.

Pressing ahead, to what was hopefully her still unornamented desk, Elle decided that perhaps it would be wise to get home at least a little earlier than usual today. She had no doubt that Lisa would live up to her threats otherwise and she couldn’t endure this level of festive cheer at work and at home.

Passing by the editor’s office, Elle repressed a shudder. Special Christmas assignments were about to be handed out and she dreaded learning what this year’s job would be. She liked to think there would be no topping Redwell, but Geoff was not a man to underestimate. His sadistic creativity knew no bounds.

For Elle, who had been stuck with minor news and fluff pieces for the last two years, it was a day of dread. There was always the hope she would get a lead that would give her the chance to break into the major news pieces. Something that would show her editor she could write about something that mattered. That lead, however, was unlikely to be found in a field of parsnips.

Reaching into her purse, Elle struggled to find the pen drive which contained her last assignment, and ended up sharing responsibility when she collided with one of her colleagues who was trying to walk backward while talking to another member of staff. Elle opened her mouth to apologise when, looking back up from her bag, she was met with the image of a red-nosed reindeer patterned on his jumper.

Shutting her mouth before she said something snide, her eyes continued upwards to meet his sheepish expression.

“Sorry.”

“No problem, I should have watched where I was going.” She replied hastily, ducking into her cubicle and starting up the computer. Shuffling some papers she tried to look busy.

Unfortunately Rudolph wasn’t going to be deterred from making idle conversation.

So. You working on your Christmas assignment?”

Internally sighing, she looked up and tried to produce a genuine smile. “I’ve written some articles for the Christmas edition already, but I don’t know what special story Geoff has lined up for me yet. Do you?” She asked politely while glancing down at her watch to check the time. She only had ten minutes before the meeting started.

“No, not yet. I hope I get something good.” He said. Be must be new, Elle thought. No seasoned Beacon reporter would be so optimistic.

“Erm, I’m Brian. Brian Stevens.”

“Elle. Everson.” She said, tacking on her surname rather lamely.

“Are you from around here, your accent sounds different. I mean good, but not local.” Brian stammered.

“We moved around a lot. I never really settled on one.”

“Oh, I thought you sounded Australian.” He hedged, not noticing the flicker of irritation he incited.

“British.” Elle corrected, trying to keep her tone even. “But I haven’t lived there since I was a kid.”

“Okay, well – all right. I’ll just let you get on with your work. Elle.” Brian said, offering her a small smile. He took a step backwards, once again without looking, and this time knocking into Darrin Montgomery their sub-editor. “Oh, sorry.”

Turning away from the new splutters of apology, Elle opened her flash drive and clicked open her latest article about a community centre planning to offer emergency accommodation over the Christmas holiday. Elle looked through it once more before sending it to the deputy editor.

Checking her email and sending off some quick replies, she stood with two minutes to spare and made her way towards the far right of the room where Geoff’s office was. A few others were already standing around, waiting for their department’s editor to appear.

Until nearly a decade ago, The Beacon Reporter had been a major city newspaper. Due to a drop in circulation there had been staff cuts and the paper (now a news magazine) was only printed fortnightly.

Elle hadn’t been on her student newspaper, and she hadn’t pursued journalism straight out of college. It had taken several years to decide what she wanted to do, only to find most doors firmly shut in her face. The Beacon was the only paper to offer her a job and two years later she was still writing eye-opening articles about book clubs and overpriced beer - a sample of the exhilarating assignments she’d been given for the last edition. She would never progress into a larger publication without a decent body of work to portfolio. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. For every article she submitted about new art exhibits or local youth organisations, Elle would try to slip in an article about potential backroom deals between galleries and local businesses, false advertising or gang violence.

Geoff, and any sub-editor Elle tried her luck with, turned away every single piece. There had been plenty of times that she had thought the fault was with her, but all it took was one quick browse through the current edition to realise that The Beacon would never publish that kind of content.

Really, Geoff was a simple man to please. All he wanted was to keep sales up, keep his staff in their jobs, not get called in by The Beacon’s investors or lawyers and leave work on time every day for the dinner waiting for him at home. He’d outstayed everyone who had come through the magazine, not looking to move onto anything new. Without a doubt he’d stay in the job until he either retired or his heart gave out.

Christmas was the only time he demonstrated the creativity he must have needed to get the position in the first place. Although he was not the most fanatically festive person Elle had ever met, there was no denying that Geoff loved Christmas. He insisted on decorations being strung around the entire office, allowed people like Brian to wear Christmas jumpers, and loved working on the festive edition released each year on the 23rd.

For this, Geoff loved to ensure the culture section was full of little Christmas themed stories. Every year it was overflowing with heart warming tales and suggestions for festive activities in and around the city. He would encourage the other sections to take the same line, with the paper dedicating half of its contents to something Christmas related – from stories about kids writing their letters to Santa to polls about the public’s favourite Christmas songs.

For their small team this meant a lot of research in the upcoming weeks to fill out the bumper edition which demanded double their usual output of articles.

Elle had written several articles for the upcoming Christmas edition. So far she had covered a Christmas disco taking place at a residential home, increased efforts by shelters to keep homeless people off the streets on the ‘big day’, and dogs being fostered over the festive season. All of which were heart warming, but not stories that would enable Elle to make a name for herself.

More writers had joined her in the corner, more than a few of them wearing Christmas themed clothing. Even Elle’s friend Caroline had bright green Christmas tree earrings swinging from her ears as she shuffled past people to come to Elle’s side.

“Morning.”

Morning.” Elle replied. “Nice earrings.”

“Don’t even start on them.” Caroline said, grinning all the while. “Just because you’re a humbug doesn’t mean everyone else has to be.”

“I’m not a humbug. And just because someone doesn’t like Christmas doesn’t make them a Scrooge. I’ll have you know I’m a very nice person.”

Caroline chuckled. “Yeah. But you look so cute when you’re annoyed - your mouth puckers up like you’ve sucked on a lemon.”

“I don’t do that.” Elle said, consciously smoothing out her face which only made Caroline laugh more.

Bumping Caroline’s shoulder with her own, Elle focused as Geoff came out of his office, looking cheerily over his staff.

Good luck this year.” Caroline murmured in her ear.

You too.”

“Excellent, is everyone here?” Geoff started, clapping his hands before rubbing them together. While he was wearing his typical white short-sleeved shirt and beige pants, he’d added a light-up tie to his usual ensemble which twinkled at them from his spot up at the front. His sub-editors – who hovered by his side – were all wearing similarly patterned ties, probably a Christmas present from the year before. Darrin kept smoothing a hand over his like he was trying to shield the waving penguin from view.

Geoff waved energetically for some latecomers to come forward before beginning. “All right let’s get started then.

“Now, junior writers I’ll have your assignments put on the notice boards. I’ll be wandering around after I talk to the other members of staff so if you have any questions just call me over.” He said jovially, his assistant Cassandra moving to post the sheets of paper up on the empty board to the right of his door which drew away a large proportion of the crowd.

A lot of the junior staff were part-time, usually in to write specific articles about fields they specialised in.

“All right, now for everyone else.” Geoff continued. “I’ll go alphabetically. Alberts.”

Elle turned back to Caroline, knowing there were three other members of staff before he would call her name.

“I don’t understand why Geoff doesn’t just put all of our assignments on the board too. Or just email them to us.”

“Just let him have this – you know he thinks we all enjoy these assignments. Don’t be a Scrooge and ruin it for him.”

Caroline laughed a little too loudly as Elle glared back at her, disguising it, badly, as a cough.

“Everson.” Geoff called, beckoning her forward.

Elle moved forward and took the sheet off Geoff, who stopped her before she started back for her desk.

“I think you’ll enjoy this one, you get some travel too.”

“Travel?” Elle repeated nervously, glancing at the assignment.

“Yeah, come see me in my office once I’ve given everything out. You’ll have to be heading up there soon.” He glanced back down at his list. “Who’s next? Grey!”

Frowning, Elle moved away from the remaining crowd of staff and started reading her packet. She felt more dispirited the more she read, especially when her eyes trailed over a familiar name.

Caroline came over and sighed. “Well, it could be worse. They want me to write about a couple of exhibitions some galleries are running for the holidays. Including one that Geoff says is a little risqué. Why don’t you tag along, it might be a laugh?”

“I can’t, I’m being shipped off to some small town again.”

“Oh, they’re not sending you back to Redwell are they?” Caroline groaned sympathetically. “What is it this year – turnip shortage?”

No, it’s a human interest story. I get to interview a guy who dresses up as Santa for a local parade.”

“A cross-dressing Santa?” Caroline asked optimistically.

“I will never get an assignment that interesting.” Elle lamented with an exaggerated sigh. “He’s been playing Santa for ten years now. It’s a record.” She said, thoroughly unimpressed.

“Huh. Could be interesting, I suppose. When are you leaving?”

“Soon, I think. I’m meant to see Geoff in a minute to talk about it.”

“Okay, well let me know. I better go contact these galleries and set up interviews. I’ll see you at lunch?” Caroline asked, moving away.

“Yeah, sure.” She agreed.

Her attention shifted back to her assignment.

Geoff was only up to Peterson, giving Elle time to read through everything before going to meet him. Most of the packet involved instructions on how to get to Eastbrook, where the local motel was, and the address of Benjamin Harris; the man she’d be interviewing.

“Wu.”

Looking up at the last name on the list, Elle smiled at Jonathan as he walked away from Geoff. He was trying, and failing, to cover up a look of disappointment. He tilted the sheet towards her as she passed.

Festive vandalism.

Elle waited until he was closer to speak, keeping her voice low to avoid accidentally crushing Geoff’s enthusiasm. “Festive vandalism? Is that even a thing?”

“Apparently.” Jon sighed. “I don’t even know where to start.”

“Darrin will be able to help. I’m sure he has some ‘art contact’ who collects these things.”

“Thanks, Elle.” Jon said, wishing her luck with her own assignment before continuing his dejected walk back to his desk.

Glancing through the open door to ensure Geoff wasn’t already talking to someone else, she tapped on the frame when she found him alone.

“You wanted to see me?”

Geoff had just squeezed in behind his desk and had tossed his list of assignments onto an already over piled stack of papers beside him. He clicked his computer back to life before glancing at her.

“Did you read it?”

“Yes. You want me to go to Eastbrook to interview a man who plays Santa.”

“For ten years running.” Geoff added gleefully. “The longest by anyone in the town.”

“All right.”

And their Christmas parade is excellent. Did you know it was shortlisted by the Modern Report as one of the most festive events in the state for the past three years running?” Geoff said happily, leaning back in his chair.

“Well, I do now.” Elle smiled, moving to take a seat across from him.

“Well you can go up there, interview a few of the locals about the parade, interview Harris, see Santa’s Grotto, talk to some people who organise the parade, learn something about the history.” Geoff suggested, waving his hand as he spoke.

“If the trends are anything to go by this event is only going to get more popular, so I think we can afford to make a real spread out of it.” He said, his enthusiasm continuing to grow as he spoke. “We’ll refund your travel and accommodation, bring your receipts back as usual. Book yourself in at the motel, you can stay for three nights.”

“Three nights?” Elle said a little too loudly, remembering all too keenly the eternity it felt like she’d spent in Redwell interviewing the local farmers. And that had only been an overnight trip.

“Yes. If you leave after lunch and get packed, you can be on the road and checking into the motel before it gets dark.” Geoff replied, unfazed by her reaction. “The practice parade isn’t until Thursday but you can head over there now – get a real feel for the place.”

“How big of an article do you want?” Elle asked. Three days seemed too long time for a simple fluff piece.

“Nothing over two-thousand words. We’ll pare it back in editing.” Geoff said and Elle lightened considerably. “If you get some good pictures, we were considering making this a centre spread. We’ve done little things about the Eastbrook Christmas Parade before, but the number of tourists visiting has risen steadily over the last few years so I thought it was time we do a bigger story on it.”

He caught her expression. “You’re the one who keeps pushing for a bigger article. I know it’s not the ‘ground-breaking, revolutionary’ piece you wanted but it’s a step up and I think it’ll make a good story. Harris playing Santa is the headline, but dedicate a good chunk to the parade too. And enjoy yourself this time – lots of people would love to go on these trips. I don’t know why you didn’t enjoy the Redwell trip last year, it only took you two days, and you got Christmas Eve off too. I only get Christmas Day.” He grumbled.

“Thank you, Geoff.” Elle said as she stood up, not having to force the smile that bloomed across her face.

“Take it easy on those roads too. You know how manic people get at Christmas. I’d try to get out before rush hour as well, it’ll get wild out there now that the schools have closed.”

“Yes. Thank you.” She repeated, closing the office door behind her before hurrying over to her desk to get started on some background research on Harris and the parade.

Articles raved about the town’s individuality, quaintness and friendliness which startled her. Her memories of Eastbrook certainly differed. Still, for centre page she’d endure it again.

It wasn’t until she was on the road back to her apartment that the haze of excitement lifted just long enough to remember her sister. Lisa would not be happy.

Her older sister had apparently morphed into their mother when she’d had Mark, and with that she’d also taken up their mum’s insistence that Elle like Christmas. Of course Elle understood why Lisa was so hell bent on getting her involved this year. Why she insisted that Elle take part in putting up the decorations, why she asked her to go along to do the Christmas shopping or to help her make mincemeat. Her sister obsessed over creating the perfect Christmas for Marcus and was prepared to draft in all the help she could get. Even her humbug of a little sister.

When Lisa had left Joe and moved in with Elle, Lisa had worried about Mark and how he would react to his parents being apart during the holidays. That was part of what had driven Lisa, at Elle’s suggestion, to invite Joe around on Christmas Day. So they could both be there for Mark.

Elle was ready to make compromises for her nephew. Her sister could bedeck her apartment in baubles and tinsel (although she still reserved the right to complain) and Mark could have a tree and play Christmas music. Heck, she’d even been roped into reading The Night Before Christmas several times over the past week before bed.

What Elle refused to budge on was liking the holiday. It wasn’t like she didn’t have a good reason.

Pulling into the residents garage, Elle grabbed her handbag and headed up to her floor.

Her apartment wasn’t really big enough for two sisters and a ten-year-old boy. Lisa and Marcus had moved into Elle’s old office, which had only just accommodated a double bed, when Joe moved away for work.

Lisa insisted once the divorce was complete they’d be moving into their own place and that there was no need for Elle to find a bigger apartment. She usually bit her tongue at this to avoid pointing out that Lisa had been saying that for nine months and still hadn’t even retained a lawyer. The one time Elle had built up the courage to point this out, her sister had shot her a look so cold it took her nearly a week to thaw out.

Once the elevator opened, Elle dashed down the corridor to unlock her front door. As expected Lisa was still out collecting Mark from school, which left Elle time to pack a few things for the trip.

She’d found it odd that Mark’s school was open for half a day on Monday but apparently they needed to go collect all their work for the last term, which meant they’d be up to their necks in macaroni art and pipe cleaner animals by the end of the day. As if the apartment wasn’t already going to be enough of a fire hazard once Lisa was through with it.

Slinging her handbag on the couch, Elle pulled out her phone and searched for the quickest route to Eastbrook. She’d never driven there herself, only going back and forth in the backseat of her father’s car. It wouldn’t even take her an hour if the traffic was favourable. Still, it would be best to get on the road sooner rather than later.

Pulling her small suitcase out from under the bed, Elle began to chuck in the usual items, only half focusing on the task at hand as she mentally began to draw up interview questions.

She could try to get information about Harris before meeting him by talking to some locals, maybe at the town hall or the school if he was born there. Cassandra had written his phone number on her sheet, but she’d wait until she checked into the motel before she’d call. Then, on the final day she could interview him, watch the practice parade and head back.

Moving into the bathroom to grab her toiletries she paused as she thought she heard a knock at the front door. Waiting a second, no other noise came, so she continued to put her stuff into a bag before padding back into the bedroom.

That time there was definitely a knock.

Hurrying to the front door, Elle blinked in surprise as she found her brother-in-law on the doorstep. His blinding smile was quickly replaced with a frown as he realised who he was standing before.

“I thought you would be at work.” Joe said, glancing behind her for some sign of Mark. A bag was at his feet.

“Hello to you too, Joe.” She said pleasantly. “It’s good to see you again.”

Joe’s eyes snapped back to her. He had the good grace to look sheepish. “Oh. Hi, Elle.” He pulled her in for a quick hug.

“I, err.” Elle paused as Joe picked up his bag and moved past her through the doorway. “I thought you weren’t coming until the twenty-second.”

“Yeah, I realised I had extra holidays at work and I’d lose them in the New Year. So I thought I’d come early and spend extra time with Mark.” He glanced around the apartment. “Are you not decorated yet? We used to have the tree up by the first week of the month.”

“Lisa and Mark were planning to do that this afternoon, he has a half day at school.”

“Oh.” Joe said apologetically. “Sorry, I guess I should have called ahead. I just wanted to surprise him.”

“No, it’s fine. He’ll be here any minute.” Elle said gently, squeezing past where he stood in the doorway to the sitting room. She was aware – as Lisa liked to regularly point it out – that it had been over a month since Joe had last been able to visit Mark, so his eagerness was understandable. At least Joe called every night, or would at least send a text if he had to work late.

“You’re staying at the Crown, right? Just down the road?”

“Yeah, I dropped off my luggage but I brought Mark’s presents.” He said, holding up a large gift bag. “I’d’ve thought you’d have a tree to put them under. I forgot you don’t like Christmas.”

“It’s fine, you can stick them in my room for now. I’m heading out on assignment for a few days.”

“You going to write about sprouts again?” Joe teased. He passed over the gift bag which Elle shoved into her bedroom, closing the door so Marcus wouldn’t see them when he got in.

“Parsnips.” Elle corrected. “I told you about that?”

Joe laughed, loosening up a little. “If I recall after a few glasses of wine last Christmas dinner you were doing a colourful impersonation of the locals.”

“I don’t think colourful is the right word.” Elle said, pausing as she heard the familiar sound of Lisa’s overfilled handbag whacking against the door as she rooted through it for her keys. “Hang on, I’ll tell her you’re here.”

“Sure. Better idea than mine.” Joe said, looking worried about seeing his estranged wife but also excited for his son’s reaction to his surprise visit. Elle would always take her sister’s side, but she was glad that Mark would get to spend more time with his Dad.

Shutting the living room door behind her, Elle opened the front door to a happy nephew.

“Aunt Elle,” he grinned. “You came to decorate the tree!”

She smiled awkwardly in return. Not exactly.

“Marcus, if you go in that living room I think you’ll find an even better nice surprise than me.” She told him, her smile fading as she looked up at her sister’s apprehensive face, watching her son dart away.

“Surprise? You didn’t put up the tree, did you?” Lisa hazarded.

“Oh yeah, I’ve gone insane.” Elle deadpanned. “No. Look, don’t panic but Joe’s in the other room. He took some days off so he could come early.”

Lisa swept past her.

Looking longingly out the door Elle closed it and reluctantly headed back towards her family.

“You couldn’t have called?”

“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.” Joe said, cradling Mark into his side.

“You didn’t think we might have other plans?”

“I don’t mind if you do, I can wait. I just wanted to spend more time with Marcus.”

“Dad can stay and help us put up the tree today, can’t he Mum?” Mark asked, his arms still around Joe’s waist. “Like we used to?”

Her little nephew had his mother sussed.

“Your Aunt Elle’s letting you decorate her apartment?” Joe asked, sounding surprised even though she’d already told him. “Wow, sounds like Christmas has come early in this house.”

“Good, then I might actually get to celebrate my birthday this year.” Elle replied. “But, I do need you to decorate so I can get your Mum’s boxes out of my hallway. I nearly killed myself falling over them this morning.”

“I’ll go bring them through.” Joe offered, leaving a wide margin around Lisa as he inched into the hall.

As Mark eagerly followed to help, Elle took the opportunity to talk to her sister alone. Seizing the sleeve of Lisa’s coat, she pulled her towards her bedroom door.

“Look, I know I’m home early but I can’t stay.”

What?” Lisa hissed back under her voice. “You promised.”

“I know, but I got a new assignment and I have to leave soon.”

“You can’t leave me with him.”

“Lisa, you’ll be fine. It’s Joe. He wants to spend time with Mark. He’ll decorate the tree then just let him take Mark to dinner or something. You only have to spend an hour or two together.”

Lisa sighed. “Great, so he can stuff Mark with junk food and bring him back hyper. Just what I need.”

“Then go with them.”

Her suggestion only earned her a scowl.

“I don’t think you’re getting the problem here, Elle.”

“It will be okay – just, try to get along. For Mark.” Elle said, using Lisa’s earlier words against her.

“Yeah, all right.” Lisa said. “Where are you going, anyway?”

“Some small town. Geoff is sending me there for three nights so I can interview a guy and write about a parade.” She answered vaguely, not wanting to give her sister anything more to worry about. “Apparently it’s a big deal. But Geoff wants me to write a big cover story, it might even make the centre fold.” Elle finished excitedly.

“That’s amazing.” Lisa said as enthusiastically as she could manage. “But...three days?”

“I know, but I’ll be heading back by Thursday lunch. You’ll be all right, won’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s just strange. Him being here.” Lisa said, following Elle over to her bed. She rooted through what Elle had already packed, tutting at the unorganised mess. “Is that all you’re taking with you?”

“I don’t need much.”

“I’ll go make help Joe with the decorations while you finish packing. Don’t forget to put in some good boots, it won’t be like the city. They’ll only clear the ice on the major streets.”

“Thanks, Mum.”

Elle ducked as Lisa threw a balled up pair of socks at her.

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