The Christmas Song, Part 5

“Mom,” says Ashley now. “Where’d you go?”

They are in the kitchen, the table between them. Michaela leans against the door, looks up, and sighs.

“Would you like some help?” says Ashley.

Michaela looks over the mess of dishes and utensils strewn across the table, plus the pile in the sink and what she’s already set into the strainer, and she nods. “You dry,” she tells Ashley.

They pass a half an hour in silence, passing dishes between each other, careful not to touch each other on the handoff. This isn’t the first time they’ve fought—not by a long shot—and they’ve become old pros at dealing with each other at this point. Thirty-four years they’ve been at each other’s throats, from the days when baby Ashley loosed her bladder on the changing table with regularity, flourish, and giggles; through her years of couch-surfing between her friends houses to avoid coming home; to this latest debacle. Thirty-four years. At the thought of the number, Michaela cries again.

“Jesus, Mom,” says Ashley, turning off the water and pulling Michaela into her arms.

Michaela rests her head against her daughter’s chest and weeps. The sound of Ashley’s heartbeat is loud and fierce in Michaela’s ear. It’s steady, as sturdy and reliable a muscle as it’s ever been. And as naïve. It has no idea, does it—that strong, pumping thing—it has no idea what horror lurks just atop it. Michaela listens for the sound of the beast that will kill her daughter, but it is silent; it is not the sort of villain that goes in for bombast or any of that. It is there to do its job and nothing more. It does not seek glory, this cancer, only the end result.

“Mom,” says Ashley, “I’m going to be okay.”

“Don’t tell me that,” says Michaela, pushing away. “Don’t you dare tell me that.”

“Mom,” says Ashley.

“I am a doctor, Ashley,” says Michaela, tapping one fist against the girl’s chest, and then another. “Don’t you dare try and tell me you’ll be okay. You have no idea, and you have no business making promises that you can’t—”

Ashley takes hold of Michaela’s fists in her hands. She says, “I didn’t make any promises, Mom. I didn’t say I was going to live forever. I just said I was going to be okay.”

They look at each other for a moment, mother and daughter, before they break into uneasy smiles.

“I’m going to be okay, Mom,” Ashley says one more time.

“What was the joke?” says Michaela. “I wasn’t really listening.”

Ashley’s smile broadens. “We were camping, and the dumb shit sprayed bug spray on his jeans—‘We used to do this in Scouts,’ he says, ‘on a dare’—and when he jumped over the fire, for the first time in his life, it actually happened, his pants were aflame.”

Michaela chuckles. A little at first, and then a lot. And then a lot more. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” she says. “Chestnuts!”

“Except,” says Ashley, “the only thing on him as big as a chestnut was something he probably hoped was a lot bigger. Or longer, at the very least.”

Now, they are laughing together, falling into one another. Laughing and crying, crying and laughing, so loud and with such gusto that they’re not sure where one feeling ends and another begins.

The End

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