“You’re looking a little pathetic there, Mom.”
As her daughter, Lizzie, entered the kitchen, the words startled Meg from her reverie. Leaning on both elbows at the kitchen’s butcher-block island, she’d been staring, unseeing, at the large tray of untouched cookies before her. She reached up to remove the tall witch’s hat she’d been wearing for the past two hours, and set it down beside the tray.
“They’re such cute cookies, aren’t they?” Meg asked her daughter in a wistful voice. “Not one trick-or-treater this year. I can’t believe it.”
Lizzie, her laptop computer tucked under one arm, paused to stare at her mother’s handiwork. “Dude, how long did it take you to make all these? They’re insane.”
“Don’t call me ‘dude,’” Meg responded automatically. “I thought it would be fun to try something different. It wasn’t a big deal.”
She had no intention of confessing to her fifteen-year-old how long the process had taken. After finally locating the correct chocolate cookies—the ones with the hollow centers—she had used icing to “glue” chocolate Kisses, points up, into the middles, then she’d painstakingly drawn hatbands and bows with a tiny tube of red icing. The result was rows and rows of miniature witch hats. Adorable. They would end up being tossed into the bottomless pits that were the stomachs of her thirteen-year-old son, Will, and his friends.
“Honestly, why do you bother?” Lizzie’s muffled voice came from inside their walk-in pantry closet. Meg knew her daughter was grabbing her favorite evening snack, two Pop-Tarts that she would eat right out of the foil package. “No one cares. It’s stupid.”
Meg quietly sighed. Maybe it was stupid to hang the tissue ghosts from the trees in their front yard. To carve the jack-o’-lantern that was the centerpiece of the arrangement on the front steps, with hay, gourds, stuffed scarecrow, and all. Okay, so Lizzie and Will were too old for the giant figures of witches and goblins that she’d taped on the windows. Lizzie was at some in-between stage, too cool to trick-or-treat but probably looking forward to next year, when some of the kids would have driver’s licenses. Meg anticipated there would be parties at different houses, no doubt with alcohol involved; She wasn’t looking forward to that phase. Will had also declined going from house to house this year, preferring to goof around with his buddies on someone’s driveway basketball court. But she’d thought Sam, her nine-year-old, might still have gotten a kick out of her decorations. Wrong. He never appeared to notice them, and he’d barely made it through a half hour of ringing doorbells before declaring he’d had enough of this holiday. What on earth had happened to Halloween being so much crazy fun, the way it was when she was a child? Didn’t kids know how to enjoy a holiday anymore? Besides, she was cutting back on the fuss; in the past, she would have spent hours baking cookies for trick-or-treaters. This year she had simply combined premade ingredients.
Lizzie, armed with her snack, left the room as the jarring noise of the garage door opening announced that Meg’s husband was home. She watched James enter and set down his briefcase in the mudroom before coming toward her. He looked exhausted. As the top in-house legal counsel to a large software corporation, he more than earned his salary. Somehow he managed to withstand endless pressure, maintain constant accessibility, and coolly handle one crisis after another. And those were only a few of his job requirements, it seemed to her.
Pulling off his suit jacket, he gave Meg a perfunctory kiss on the cheek.
“Happy Halloween,” Meg said brightly.
“Ummm.” His attention was already on the day’s mail, which he retrieved from its customary spot on one of the counters. He was frowning as he flipped through the envelopes.
“Too many bills, Meg.” He sounded angry. “Too many bills. It’s got to stop.”
She didn’t reply. In eighteen years of marriage, James had rarely complained about their bills. Sure, he wasn’t thrilled with paying private school tuition for three children, but it was something he and Meg both wanted to do. Beyond that, it was understood between them and even among their friends that his wife was the saver and he was the spender.
Meg had always understood that things were important to her husband. It was he who purchased the designer suits, their fancy watches, her expensive jewelry. It was he who booked the first-class vacations. He was the one, in fact, who chose this enormous house. Even with three children, Meg had no idea why they needed five thousand square feet in one of the most expensive sections of Charlotte.
It was clear that growing up with very little had left a psychological scar on James that he tried to cover up with material trappings. She didn’t like it, but she understood. That was what he needed to feel comfortable. He didn’t brag or rub his success in anyone’s face. Still, it was as if he had to have more of everything just to feel he was level with everyone else.
Recently, though, he seemed to have undergone a change in thinking. He had started complaining regularly about everything she and the children spent.
“Are you hungry?” Meg moved to open the refrigerator door.
He slapped the mail back down on the counter. “I mean it! The spending has to stop. We need to batten down the hatches.”
She turned back to him. “You’re right,” she said soothingly. “We will—the hatches, I mean, and the battening. Now, can I get you something to eat?”
“I don’t want anything,” he snapped. “I’ll be in my study.”
Meg stared after him. Aside from his sudden financial prudence, he had been uncharacteristically irritable for a while now. And it had been getting worse, she realized, not better. She heard the door to his study slam shut. James was typically calm, even in a crisis. Especially in a crisis, she amended. That was one of the things she loved about him.
They met as sophomores at the University of Illinois in a nineteenth-century American history class. Meg happened to sit next to him one day early in the semester. When he began to juggle a pen, an assignment pad, and an empty soda can, it made her laugh. She grew more interested in him when he was the only one in class who was able to discuss all the major battles of the Civil War before the reading had even been assigned.
Their relationship had started out as more of a friendship. A little teasing back and forth led to some shared coffees, then pizza while studying for the final exam. Slowly, their connection grew and deepened. James proved to be a stabilizing influence on the flighty, directionless girl Meg had been. She had admired his strength, his solidness—not the physical kind but the kind that made her feel cared for and safe. Of course, she reflected with a smile, she hadn’t minded that he was tall and broad-chested, with thick sandy-colored hair and large dark eyes whose intent gaze made her feel she was the most important person in the room.
By the end of junior year, it was clear to both of them that marriage would follow on the heels of graduation. While he went to law school, she set up their first apartment and helped support them by working in a boring but well-paying job as an administrative assistant. The plan had always been for Meg to go to law school once James had a job, but then she got pregnant with Lizzie, and that was that. Which was perfectly fine with Meg. She wouldn’t trade one minute of time with her three children for anything in the world. Working would have been impractical for her, anyway, since they had moved to three different states over the years because of on the series of job offers that came James’s way. His drive and early success meant their lives were far more than comfortable. She and the children had everything they could ever need and more.
Maybe too much more.
She heard her older son coming downstairs—his feet, as usual, clomping rapidly rather than just walking. He was talking, his voice growing louder as he approached. “That is so sick, man!”
Meg rolled her eyes, understanding this to be high praise for whatever it was Will was discussing. She called out to him.
He stuck his head in the kitchen. He was slender and noticeably tall for an eighth-grader, with a face remarkably like his father’s. Will wore a dark-gray sweatshirt, his face nearly hidden in its hood. “Hang on,” he said to the room in general. “My mom, yeah.”
Meg understood that he was using a hands-free phone. No doubt it was the newest, tiniest, most advanced gadget available. She swore that half the time she didn’t know if her children were talking—or listening, for that matter—to her, to one another, or to someone else entirely on a cell phone or computer. Much to her chagrin, her husband aided and abetted the children’s desire to be up on the latest electronic everything. It seemed as if he came home every other week with an updated version of some gizmo or other. The stuff just kept changing, rendering the previous purchases obsolete, but no one besides her seemed to mind. Though lately, she reflected, she hadn’t seen the usual parade of new electronic toys, so perhaps James had heeded her protests.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from An Amish Christmas by Cynthia Keller. Copyright © 2010 by Cynthia Keller. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.