Today's Reading

"The Christmas Tree Ship," Vivian said, turning back to the tree. Their father had loved to tell that story. He'd taken their mother down to the docks on the Chicago River the first year they were married to pick out their tree from the decks of the famous ship itself. That old-fashioned schooner had trolled the waters of Lake Michigan every fall to make its way to northern Wisconsin and fill itself to bursting with Christmas pines. According to the oft-told story, their mother had roamed the deck for a solid hour before picking a giant tree that proved almost impossible to get home to the small apartment they were renting at the time. But their father couldn't refuse her. He said he could never refuse their mother anything.

Vivian blinked away the tears that sprang suddenly to her eyes. She missed her father, never more than at this time of year. She reached out and brushed her fingers against one of the glass icicles hanging on the tip of the branch closest to her. It swayed under her fingertips, sparkling in the lights. She realized too late that her touch had been too forceful. The icicle rocked dangerously, then slid from the branch and fell to the floor with a crash. She flinched, waiting for a sharp rebuke from her mother.

None came. Vivian slowly opened her eyes and unclenched her fists. She glanced over her shoulder, but her mother was no longer fussing with the canapés. She'd left the room before the crash. Vivian and Everett looked at each other in relief.

"Don't worry about it, Viv. You know the saying: You have to break a few ornaments to make a Christmas," Everett said. 

She rolled her eyes at his lame attempt at a joke. "I believe that's eggs and omelets."

"I'll get the broom," he said.

"No, I'll get it. It's my mess."

She strode across the room before Everett could dissuade her. Cleaning up would keep her mind off the party. But as she drew closer to the kitchen, she could hear her mother's voice raised in irritation. Her mother was prickly at the best of times, but preparing for her parties always brought out the worst in her. And her mother's worst was something Vivian didn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole. Best to avoid the situation entirely, Vivian thought.

She doubled back to the front staircase and hopped up to the second floor. She'd just grab a broom from the second-floor utility closet, she thought. But she paused on the landing, her eyes falling on the closed door of her father's study at the top of the stairs. Her heart clenched suddenly, and before she could think too deeply about what she was doing or why, she opened the study door and stepped inside, closing the door behind her with a soft click.

The study was dark and quiet. It smelled male, of tobacco and leather bindings. Vivian stood there for a moment, leaning against the door in the dark and intending just to pause long enough to gather her strength before the party began in earnest. 

The only light in the room came from the distant streetlamp outside. It was faint, but her eyes followed it to what it illuminated: a picture frame sitting on the top of the bookcase. Her spirit lifted immediately at the sight of it, and she crossed the room to fetch the frame from the shelf. She smiled down on the contents: a tattered paper Saint Nicholas ornament she'd made as a child. Despite its homeliness, her father had loved it so much he'd had it framed and placed where he could see it all year round.

She touched her fingertips to the glass, remembering the day she had given him the ornament. The Christmas of 1918 when she was almost five, her father had nearly died from the Spanish flu, though she hadn't known that at the time. She remembered handing her father the Saint Nicholas shyly, afraid of looking straight at him. She hadn't seen him since he'd fallen ill two weeks earlier, and the wasted man lost in the bedclothes looked very little like the large, strapping father she'd always known. But then he'd smiled weakly at that ornament, at her—and Vivian's heart broke a little recalling it even now, almost twenty years later.

She wanted this reminder of him, of what they'd shared as father and daughter, back on the Christmas tree where it belonged. She turned the frame over, removed the pins, and pulled off the backing. As she did, something flashed in the dim light and fell to the floor with a clatter. Vivian crouched and squinted into the darkness. She saw nothing with the first few sweeps of her eyes, but then there it was—just the tip sticking out from underneath the radiator. A tiny silver key.

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