(I borrowed a few characters from my latest series, Love in Andauk, for this very short story. It’s set about nine years before the first book so no worries on spoilers.)
Ruth kept her feet at a deliberately moderate pace. At fourteen, she felt she was too old to run down the stairs on Christmas morning. But her eyes had opened more easily than most mornings and her heart had been running since she pulled the red-and-green striped slippers onto her feet.
She stepped into the family room and frowned in disappointment. Her family was not sitting around waiting for her as she’d expected. Her two oldest brothers were fraternal twins. One of them, Isaac, was home from college for a few weeks and was sitting on the couch reading a book. It had a plain brown cover. No sparkles, no picture of Santa. There was nothing festive about it or the studious expression on his face.
Neither of Ruth’s parents were in sight. Banging and running water in the next room suggested one or both of them was cleaning up the kitchen. The only person who seemed to be aware that it was a holiday was her sixteen-year-old brother Adam, who was doing something weird with the presents. He wasn’t shaking them or otherwise trying to guess the contents. He was just stacking them against a wall. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Christmas present Tetris,” he said. “Do you see one that will fill in this space here?”
Ruth rolled her eyes and moved into the kitchen instead of answering. Her mom was sitting at the table sipping coffee while her dad was loading plates into the dishwasher.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” her mom said. She gestured to the counter. “We saved you a plate of pancakes, but you’ll have to warm them up.”
“When are we going to open the presents?” Ruth asked.
“We waited for you, but now Joseph is at church so we have to wait for him.”
Ruth groaned. “Why didn’t he go to midnight Mass with the rest of us?”
Her father shut off the water at the sink and turned around. “The same reason you didn’t want to go at 9 am.”
She grudgingly conceded the point. Her brother worked odd hours. Midnight for him would be more like getting up early than staying up late. She grabbed the pancakes and popped them in the microwave. She made herself some hot chocolate to go with them. The pancakes had been devoured, and Ruth was savoring her cooling drink when Adam wandered into the kitchen.
“Mom,” he said, “why don’t any of the presents have tags on them?”
Their mom’s eyes widened. “Did you move them?”
“He was in there building a fort out of them,” Ruth said.
Adam flicked the top of her ear. “Present Tetris,” he corrected, as though that was far less ridiculous than a fort.
“I was running out of tape last night so I just set a tag on each present until I knew if I would have enough.” She winced. “I forgot to warn everyone not to knock the tags off when you picked them up.”
“I guess you didn’t have enough,” Ruth said. She hoped no one was going to mention how much tape she had used wrapping her gifts.
“No. In fact, there are two presents that have the paper held on with the ribbon.”
Ruth’s dad put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. “You should have sent me out for more tape.”
“At ten o’clock on Christmas Eve?” She sighed and stood up. “I guess I need to sort this out.”
When Ruth followed the others back to the family room, she immediately noticed little red tags strewn around the floor under the tree. “Adam, the tags are all over the place,” she said. “How did you not notice them falling off the presents?”
“I was focused on their shapes.” He had already begun to gather up all the tags she pointed out.
Their mom started to dismantle the Tetris wall as she taxed her brain to remember what was inside each box. Adam handed her an appropriate tag whenever she identified a recipient.
They had sorted through about half of the presents when Joseph walked in. “Hey,” he said, “looks like Baby Ruth finally decided to get out of bed.”
She knew she frowned a little, but she said nothing. She wanted him to think she was bothered by the teasing and not the nickname. She wasn’t a fan of being called a candy bar. It was best to stay quiet though because her brothers were using the nickname less and less often. She knew them too well. If they knew it was starting to annoy her, they’d try harder to use it.
Isaac finally put down his book. “She’s really anxious to get to the presents. Maybe she has plans to see her boyfriend when we’re done.”
“Gabe is not my boyfriend,” Ruth said. Honestly, she kind of figured she’d marry him someday. He’d have to get a lot less goofy first though. “And we already exchanged presents yesterday anyway.”
“What’d you get him?” Joseph asked. “And did you have to go back in time to find it?”
“I don’t know,” Ruth admitted. Gabe was fascinated by old technology. “I found something that looked pretty old at a thrift store. He didn’t know what it was either, but he seemed excited to try to figure it out.”
“Sounds easy to shop for if you don’t even have to know what you gave him,” Isaac said.
Their dad groaned skeptically. It was the most skeptical groan of the year. “Tell him how many thrift stores you asked me to drive you to.”
“That was kind of a long day.” Ruth smiled sheepishly, then tried to quickly get the attention off the trek. “Did you get Jessica something?” she asked Isaac.
“I did. But she wouldn’t accept it yet.”
“Yet?” Ruth said.
Joseph tossed his coat on the arm of a chair before he sat next to it. “Is this the same Jessica who shot you down last month?”
“She’s warming up to me,” Isaac said. “I almost got her to come to my black belt test last week.”
Ruth snorted. “What makes you think she’d be impressed to watch you beat people up?”
“Sparring is not beating people up,” Joseph said.
“It’s not about the…” Isaac paused to consider. “It’s the commitment I wanted her to see. Back me up, Mom. Girls like work ethic, right? It took me seven years to earn that rank.”
Before their mom could answer, Joseph said, “It took me six.”
Isaac began to argue, and Ruth turned back to the kitchen to retrieve her last few sips of hot chocolate. Her brothers had been having the same argument since they graduated from high school, about a year and a half ago, about whether a fulltime job or a full college coarse load was the bigger time commitment. It didn’t have anything to do with which was better or more important, only a worn-out discussion on who had more time to throw other guys onto the mats. Ruth had thought the matter would be settled when Joseph earned his first. But he insisted that was because he had different hours, not fewer.
It seemed that everyone was looking at Ruth when she reentered the family room, everyone except Adam, who for some reason was on his belly with his head under the Christmas tree. “Did you get anyone a book this year?” Ruth’s mom asked her. She was holding a present that did seem to be shaped like a book.
Ruth pointed at a small pile next to the tree. “My presents are all over there.”
“It definitely feels like a book.” Her mom wrinkled her forehead in thought. “I’m sure I didn’t get anyone a book.”
“There aren’t any other tags,” Adam said as he crawled out from under the tree. A piece of tinsel clung to his red hair.
“Why don’t you go ahead and get us started by opening that one, Mom?” Isaac said. “Then we’ll see if anyone wants to claim it.”
She glanced around the room for confirmation or countersuggestions. Seeing no opposition, she tore off the shiny red paper. “Everything Old,” she said, holding up the book for everyone to see the cover.
“Oh, I’ll take that,” Ruth said. “I hear it’s really good.” She made a move towards the book but was still checking for signs of recognition.
“No one remembers buying this?” Ruth took the book from her mom, who asked if she could read it next. Still no one admitted to stashing the book under the tree. “Oh, well,” Ruth said. “Thank you and Merry Christmas to whoever had this great gift idea.”
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