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Courtney Sawyer

Christmas Lights

We sat at the railroad crossing, watching the cars of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe blow through against a cold, blue wind. I glanced up at the sky through the tinted black stripe of the windshield. It made the clouds seem dark, though they weren’t. They had begun to swirl and hang low over the horizon, the sky turning a deep amber. 

The waning sunlight glinted off the street, giving it the look of coals inside an oven. It reminded me of the tour we took once in Bricktown, where they demonstrated how bricks are made, all the edges glowing out at us from the kiln. 

Mom leaned forward, her arms resting on the steering wheel as she watched the rail cars, her eyes moving along to their cadence. I think we both found a sense of comfort in their rhythm—a constant for us, if only for a few minutes.

“I just wish we could go see Christmas lights,” she said, her gaze turning from empty to nostalgic.

“I know,” I said. We had just finished one of our visits to see you, and now we had company to entertain for Christmas dinner.

“I liked doing that when you all were little. Back when things were just,” she paused, “easier.”

The last car passed and the barriers lifted, revealing the final sliver of daylight hovering over the end of Main Street. The sun seemed to be setting for an eternity. 

******

The six of us huddled together at the Chickasha Festival of Light, as Mom wrangled us in closer to snap our photo. It was freezing on the bridge, and we packed together, a collage of colorblocked windbreakers surrounded by the millions of tiny orbs. Ropes of warm yellow light wrapped the bridge tunnel, creating a glowing hallway across the lake. The technicolor trees on the shore splashed light down onto the water, rendering it like a moving watercolor with splotches of black where the geese were floating. 

“Hannah, get down!” Dad yelled at you from the end of the bridge. 

You had climbed onto the top rail when Mom and Dad were fiddling with the camera, and you balanced with your back to the water. Your hair was in a side ponytail, your silver earrings shining like bells as I looked up at you. You were always the daredevil of the family, venturing to try the things the rest of us wouldn’t. We all kept giggling as Dad got more worked up. This only made it funnier.

“I said get down, now.” 

You lingered for just a second longer until he lurched toward you, taunting him until the last possible moment. You jumped down and landed like a cat on the planks of the bridge, then tore down the walkway to safety on the other side. You knew he’d be too tired to chase you, and that he couldn’t catch you if he wanted to.

Mom eventually started calling you “Magpie” because of your incessant chatter and singsong voice. She always joked that it was you who taught me how to talk. You always longed to be heard, to not get lost in the shuffle. 

******

I sat with Brady and read his favorite book while we waited for Gabe to finish his afternoon nap. Summer had just started, so Mom went back to work and I took over when school let out. 

“When do I get to see Mommy?” Brady asked, turning around to face me. He was starting to sense that something was wrong, and I wasn’t sure what to say. He got your hazel eyes, and in them I caught a glimpse of disappointment as I answered the same way that everyone else had for the past couple weeks.

“Soon,” I replied. I closed the book and started to reach for another from the stack we’d gathered in the living room. A box of plastic toys sat nearby in the corner, the neon garage sale stickers still attached. 

We had tried telling him that you were sick, and needed time to get better. This probably didn’t make sense to him, given that when we’d said this about our Grandma, he was still allowed to visit her. I didn’t know how to explain that this was different. That, unlike Grandma in her final days, I knew you’d be better eventually. I just couldn’t say when. 

He climbed down from the chair and went into his room, returning with Bear hugged close to his chest. I wished I could fill the void for him, take away his confusion at the revolving door of people who were not his mother coming to sit with him to read, draw, and sing. 

******

Mom’s china was set, the gold-rimmed glasses calling our guests to the table like beacons. She shuffled dishes around in a flurry, timing everything perfectly in a seamless parade of prime rib, sweet potatoes, and creamed asparagus. Under everything, I could still detect the smell of the sausage balls she’d made earlier, keeping with our Christmas morning tradition. 

Dad brought more chairs in from the garage—extra guests, the usual—as more people flowed into our hive of organized chaos. 

Our other siblings were playing with your kids, who by this time were well-adjusted to living with Mom and Dad. We knew of the stories about other families who had been torn apart by this kind of thing, and we did our best to appreciate our togetherness through it all.

Uncle Bud turned to me in his seat, squeezing my shoulder as we waited for the salad. 

“You guys are just a well-oiled machine, aren’t you?” he said.

“Yeah, I think we’ve got it figured out.” I smiled back at him, passing him the bowl. 

Turning my gaze back to the room, I watched as Mom plugged in the Christmas tree. It buzzed alive with sparks of light, looking almost effervescent with its gold foil ribbons and red beads reflecting the twinkling bulbs. Everyone noticed that you weren’t there, though this time they didn’t have to ask why, and we didn’t have to hide it.

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