Chapter Thirty Three
Jessica watched her sister loading the dishwasher. She ate her cereal slowly. Why should Jinger take the bowl away until she had finished with it? She swirled the flakes around with her spoon and some of the milk sloshed onto the kitchen table. It occurred to her that breakfast on Christmas day ought to be something special, just like all the other meals. She should to be able to have whatever she wanted; ice cream, chocolate or maybe Helen would even make pancakes for her?
Still, she was not very hungry. Jinger and her weird friend were playing some kind of trick on her and pretty Jessica was not used to that. Early this morning she had planned to go downstairs and open the presents under the tree before anyone else got up. She might have re-wrapped some of them, depending on whether she liked what she found inside. But just as she closed her bedroom door, she heard voices coming from her sister’s room. Jessica was pleased. She could tell her dad that she had been woken up by Jinger and her stupid friend. She snuck up to her sister’s door to tell her what she was going to do. It would be much more fun if Jinger had the rest of the night to worry about what their dad would say.
She put her hand on Jinger’s door handle and heard Tabs say that her brother was born as a wolf cub.
That was weird. Jessica had grown up hearing stories about Murkle and the wolves and she was much too old now to believe them. So obviously nasty Jinger and her friend with the uncool clothes were trying to fool her. They must have been trying to wake her up on purpose and it was just a coincidence that she was getting up to look under the Christmas tree at the same time. But it was strange and Jessica was so distracted staring ahead and wondering about it, that she did not notice that Jinger had left the kitchen a while earlier and she had to put her own cereal bowl in the dishwasher after all.
“Which do you want to open first, Jinger?” Helen asked as the whole family and Tabs knelt under the tree. “How about this one? It’s from your dad. Or this one from Dorothy?” She held up a series of brightly wrapped parcels. Jinger noticed that all the presents were better wrapped this year. Most Christmases, they looked as though someone had opened them once already and stuck them back together in a hurry.
Jinger was embarrassed. Although having Tabs stay with them was fun and it was easy to see that asking her to had been totally The Right Thing, it was proving a bit much to have her witness their Christmas holiday traditions. Since her dad had snuck into her bedroom this morning wearing a straggly white beard with elastic loops over his ears whispering, “Ho ho ho, it’s time to get up. Hope you’ve been good girls this year,” and giggling loudly at himself, it had been obvious that Jinger should have prepared Tabs for the holiday season Barley-style.
Tabs did not seem to notice. She started making suggestions about which present should be unwrapped first, based on what Jinger thought were rather odd criteria, like, “You have to do the one in the snowman paper next or it‘ll melt,” and, “You can leave the one with the little robins on it until last if you want. They won’t fly away all winter!”
To her relief, it occurred to Jinger that there were some pretty strange Barker Christmas traditions too.
After they had finished opening their presents and eaten their Christmas dinner, Jinger noticed something odd. She was having a great time. She passed a big plate from her dad to Tabs and Tabs put it in the dishwasher. Helen rinsed another in the sink and passed it down the line again. Jinger’s dad made a point of passing them all in different ways and this one he hooked under his leg, hopping madly on the other while he waited for Jinger to collect it from him.
Unused to them all laughing together, Jinger realised what was so strange. Jessica was quiet. It was not that she would usually have been laughing and playing with them while they made a game of their kitchen chore. It was that she was not boasting, or crying about her presents, or complaining about having a sprout on her plate. Jessica was not even in the kitchen. Jinger decided not to bother asking if anyone knew where she had gone and pretended to throw an octopus mug over arm to Tabs as though it were a cricket ball, just as her dad had done to her.
“What did you tell your wife anyway?” Dorothy asked, not really interested but wanting to pass the time on the long drive back.
“I said I had to go out and pick up some presents that I’d left at school. Those furs will come in handy for that,” Mr Baldwin said, looking pleased with himself for thinking of it.
“Not about that. About what you were doing in the cabin with Culpin. Your boy can’t be so stupid he didn’t tell her you were there,” Dorothy said, annoyed to have to explain a question she did not particularly want the answer to.
“I said I was there undercover!” he exclaimed happily as he steered the vehicle slowly over the icy bridge.
“What? She bought that?” Dorothy asked, irritated. It was not like Mr Baldwin to have a good idea and now there had been a few of them.
“I said that I had stumbled across the cabin while I was planning new cross-country routes for the First Years. That part was true. But I told them I banged on the door and pretended to help the big bad Woodcutter with his evil scheme to get information from him to help the school. I was so good at pretending I even fooled my own son! They think I should get a bravery award! And an acting award!”
“Idiot,” Dorothy mumbled. She fingered the bottle she had found in the book. It contained the last of the viscous fluid. She returned to looking out of the window at the slowly passing white scene. The liquid would not last long, but maybe long enough for her to find more. There must be another special wolf somewhere.
Mr Baldwin liked a little conversation on a long journey. “So why do you care if Jinger destroys Murkle anyway? You’ve never lived there,“ he asked.
Dorothy did not look away from the view but simply replied, “I need Murkle even more than you do.” Her tone of voice told her driver that she now preferred to travel in silence. Her hand flitted up to her aching chest.
When they arrived back into Brink Stenton, she persuaded him to escort her all the way up her path, secretly delighting in postponing his celebrations with his family for as long as possible.
After Mr Baldwin left, not disguising his hurry, the doorbell rang. Who would think it was acceptable to turn up uninvited on Christmas day? Dorothy peeped through the spy-hole in the front door. Of course. A child of Douglas Barley. That’s who would turn up on Christmas Day. Wondering if she would ever be rid of the family, Dorothy sighed and prepared a smile. At least it was not the evil twin.
“Hello, Dot,” Jessica said in a voice which made Dorothy turn off her smile and switch it for a more concerned, grandmotherly expression. The old woman hoped she would not have to think of anything grandmotherly to say to go with it.
“Oh, Jessica. Happy Christmas. Whatever’s the matter, lovey?”
“It’s stupid Jinger and her stupid friend. Everyone is making a fuss of her because she’s back from school. They’re all ignoring me.”
Dorothy no longer felt in the mood. She was hungry and there was a Christmas meal in a plastic-covered tray waiting in the freezer. She tried to sound patient but struggled. “Well, you’ll just have to wait your turn, lovey. I’m sure they haven’t forgotten you. Now if you don’t mind I haven’t had my Christmas lunch yet.”
Dorothy blocked the doorway as much as she could. The girl with the wide-spaced eyes was not the sort to take a hint.
“That’s okay, I don’t mind. I didn’t like the turkey Helen made. What’ve you got?” Jessica pushed into the house stomping her snowy boots on the carpet.
“Erm… turkey. Of course,” Dorothy said reluctantly, adding, “Come in,” rather too late.
In the kitchen, Dorothy slid the brittle white tray out of its cardboard sleeve and pierced the plastic. The contents looked like a deformed, dry version of the picture on the box. She popped it through the little door and the microwave began its unlikely Christmas resurrection. The medicine always gave her an appetite.
Jessica sat at the table and picked at her peeling nail varnish. This was not turning out the way she had hoped. Old people ought to be thankful for a visit from someone young and pretty like her, especially on Christmas Day. The Barleys’ old family friend did not seem pleased to see her at all. But Jessica was determined not to go home yet. They could all just worry about her for a while first. What she needed was something to make Dorothy grateful she had come and make her want her to stay. Something interesting. Jessica suddenly knew she had just the thing.
“I only came because it’s so noisy at home with Jinger and her friend there. I couldn’t sleep last night because of those two talking.” A curled flake of pearly pink varnish fell onto the table.
“Hmmm…” Dorothy murmured, more to the unpromising single-coloured meal she had squeezed out of the tray on to her plate than to Jessica.
Jessica knew she needed to get to the point. “They were talking about Tabs’ little brother. Tabs was telling a really stupid story about him. It’s really immature. About how he was born in a wolf’s body or something. Don’t suppose you want to hear it, do you?”
Dorothy’s Christmas dinner cooled and dried on the plate untouched and she did not let Jessica leave until she had told her the whole story several times.
When Jessica finally got home she was pleased to find that her dad had been worried enough about her to telephone everyone he could think of to find out where she was. She was even more pleased to realise Dorothy must have taken her receiver off the hook.