Dee Anna and Phil rested in companionable silence, Phil at one end of the grey plaid sectional couch, and Dee Anna stretched out at the other end, legs swinging over the sofa’s worn arm. They had turned the lights off and were gazing with satisfaction at the glowing Christmas tree that stood in the opposite corner.
Their mother had gone to bed a couple of hours before, but neither of them had felt sleepy. Phil had tromped down to the basement and Dee Anna had heard some bumps and scrapes, along with vague exclamations from her brother. A short while later he had appeared at the top of the stairs with three large boxes stacked precariously in his arms, light strings trailing down the stairs from the top box.
“Careful!” his sister had exclaimed, rescuing the light strings, but then she had laughed.“Bro, you have dust webs in your hair.”
“You would too, if you’d been down there. I don’t think anything’s been moved in about a decade. Leastways, not judging by the cobwebs and dust.”
His loud sneeze had made Dee Anna laugh again, and she had impulsively ruffled his hair, shaking the dust into the air until she too had sneezed. Her gesture, reminding them both of days when they had been inseparable, had made Phil smile. Not long after, the two of them had dusted the boxes and removed the lids, half in expectant pleasure and half in dread. It had not been difficult to find a rhythm of working together. Phil, taking his father’s usual role, had checked the light strings and draped them over the branches while Dee Anna found hooks for the ornaments.
After they had placed everything on the branches, Phil had decided that the tree still looked bare and Dee Anna had headed for the kitchen and rummaged in the cupboards until she located a jar of popcorn. She’d popped it the way they always had, shaking a saucepan of kernels vigorously back and forth over the gas burner. She had dumped the fragrant popcorn into a large metal bowl and Phil had returned to the basement where he had found his mother’s needles and thread in a cigar box atop her long-unused Singer sewing machine.
It had taken time to make two long strings, and the conversation had flowed easily between them, dispelling the last vestiges of awkwardness. Phil had surprised himself by talking about his new A.A. friend, Sarah. He had hesitantly asked about Madeline, and this had led to Dee Anna sharing a little of her life in Madison and her sorrow at Michael’s untimely death. Phil’s eyes had grown soft, listening to his sister.
“I’m sorry, Dee Anna, so sorry.”
“I should have been in your life, should have helped you, should know my niece…you know. I’m just…just sorry, that’s all.”
Dee Anna had patted his arm, smiling reassuringly. “Oh, Phil…” she’d stopped, fighting tears. “I’m the one who is sorry. I mean where was I when you were working out west, when you were…in trouble?” She’d paused and shaken her head. “I wasn’t an angel, sweetie. I was boozing it up and acting like a fool down in Dallas. Maybe I didn’t end up in rehab…” She’d stopped, afraid she’d hurt his feelings, but he had nodded. “But Phil, I had my own stuff to deal with. Not so different, really.” She had blown her nose and continued, “Thanks to an anonymous Catholic priest and a friend who lived in Wisconsin--and thanks to my sweet Michael, God found me.”
“God never lost you, Sis.”
“Well, no.” She had smiled, “You are right. God never lost me. I just finally realized, I guess, after all my running and trying to forget this town and this house and…all of it, I guess I found out that God was still there. Still waiting.”
“Right.” Phil had nodded again, encouragingly.
“And you know what else?” A kind of joy had filled his sister’s face. “God’s calling was still there.” She paused, and shook her head, looking a little dazed. “After all the--all the crap.” she grinned,
“After all of it, God still had a place for me.”
That had led to talk of Eastside Methodist Church and then, as they had draped the popcorn strings across fragrant branches, of Little Big Foot.
“Dang it all, Phil, “ she said now, swinging her feet, “I already did the small town thing.” She gestured vaguely. “You know about that, same as me.”
“And there was no way I was gonna go back to some hick town…you know?”
“Yep. Sure do.”
“But I did. Can't say why, exactly. It's an odd place, but I think I really kind of like it. Still kind of finding out about people and stuff.” After a pause, she added, “ And I’m starting to miss them all. And Maddie, of course.” Her voice trailed off as she realized just how much she was missing her daughter. ]
“Are they being nice to you?”
“Um,” she paused. “Mostly, so far.
"Ha! Just wait till they start actin' like holy rollers!"
Dee Anna pulled a couch pillow from under her head and flung it at him. "That is so not happening!"
They both laughed. The tree lights touched their faces softly as they grew silent once more.