I think it's only been in the past few years that I've really appreciated the opportunity to be with family - and some of that has been due to living in another state for the first time in my life. (That's a geographical state, not a state of mind, though perhaps both are accurate.) I've always been very close to my immediate family, and holidays - even minor ones - seem a little peculiar without them.
One of the central threads of my story Xmas Wishes is the absence of Irena's mother. She has her reasons (and they may be more than they appear) but Christmas is somehow hollow:
Presents glinted under the tree, but Irena hardly thought about gifts - not even anticipating the look on her grandfather's face when he saw the antique watch. Instead, she was fixed on the party, the thought of spending time with Justin, and the hovering promise of mistletoe.
Christmas Eve arrived with no phone call from her mother, perhaps because Irena stood staring at the phone, willing it to ring. She expected to feel more resentment, but her heart seemed encased in ice. It was difficult to feel anything.
"Her duties are very important," her grandfather said.
"A midnight call, I expect." Her grandmother's pinched face encouraged her to believe this. "So as to reach us when it's properly Christmas."
Phone call or not, Irena didn't intend to be home at midnight. She endured the carols, cookies and traditional Christmas movies - a Christmas Story, Elf and, for reasons never properly explained, The Long Kiss Goodnight - with her attention elsewhere. She felt more distant from her family than she ever had.
"I don't feel well," she said after dinner, feeling the lie tingle on her tongue. "I think I ate too much. Do you mind if I lie down?"
"Go on, dear."
Irena trudged upstairs, resisting the urge to sprint. She plumped her pillow and blankets in what she hoped was a convincing fashion. She had never broken out of her house before. What if she couldn't manage the climb? Television made it seem so easy. Obligatory for any teenaged girl, in fact. She knew she couldn't risk wearing tights and a dress. Well, she had planned on slacks anyhow: her thighs were too big.
Maybe that should have been her third wish.
She tossed her cellphone on the dresser - she always put it there when she slept; it would look suspicious otherwise. She eased the window open, wincing when it creaked. The cold slapped her in the face. She held her breath, sliding out. Her fingers clutched awkwardly at a frost-covered branch. It stung. She should have worn gloves, but they were downstairs in the closet. She wobbled out into the crook of the tree and pushed the window as far shut as it would go from the outside.
Then she was alone in the darkness.