Bryan watched as his fiancee’s family laid out everything. “You guys take decorating seriously,” he said, half teasing.
“Of course we do. Most of what we put up has been passed down through many generations, so it’s very special to us,” Kenna’s mother said, giving a disapproving sniff. “Only the best families truly know how to celebrate Christmas.”
“Mom, knock it off,” Kenna said. “Just because Bryan’s family doesn’t do the same things we do, it doesn’t mean they’re not one of the best.” She gave Bryan an apologetic smile and mouthed “I’m sorry.” He winked at her.
“Phoebe, are you trying to prove you’re better than everyone again?” Kenna’s father asked, coming into the room with a tray full of steaming mugs. “It’s Christmas. Knock it off.” He didn’t seem to notice he was echoing his daughter.
“Nicolas, he didn’t even know that we have this tradition,” Phoebe said.
“Why would he? This is his first Christmas with us. Kenna usually goes home with him,” Nicolas said. “And you know I hate it when you use my full name.”
“It’s Christmas and you will use it, to show respect to our ancestors,” Phoebe said.
“I doubt they’ll mind me being called Nick, Phoebe.”
“Can we get the decorating over with?” Kenna asked. “I have to go to work soon, and Bryan promised to take his sister and her kids to see Santa this afternoon.”
Phoebe sniffed again. Nicolas glared at her. She subsided. The tree was already up and the lights strung. It lacked the baubles that were now sitting in carefully placed boxes. Phoebe handed one small box to Kenna. “Put these on in their proper places.”
“Yes Mom,” Kenna said. Bryan watched as the most exquisite crystal snowflakes were pulled out and hung with care on the uppermost branches.
For the next two hours, Kenna was forced to do all the work while her mother dictated where the ornaments were to go. Any time Nicolas tried to help, to speed up the work, Phoebe shrieked at him and he backed off. Finally the tree was decorated to Phoebe’s satisfaction. “There, that’s what it’s supposed to look like.”
“Mom, I’ve got an hour left before I have to change and go,” Kenna said. “You’ll have to set up the Nativity yourself. What else do you want me to do?”
“I can’t believe you didn’t take today off,” Phoebe said. “You know this is the day we always set up the tree.”
“I’m the most junior employee on the list, Mom. I don’t get to choose my days off this close to Christmas. The only reason I get Christmas Day off is because our GM decided to shut everything down this year,” Kenna said. “If he changes his mind, I’ll have to work then too.”
“Perhaps Bryan can help set up the Nativity,” Nicolas said.
“I’m taking Kenna to work, and then picking up my sister,” Bryan said. “I can’t stay either.”
“As I thought, completely unworthy,” Phoebe said.
“Mom, you are damned lucky I didn’t go home with Bryan this year. The only reason I’m here is because Dad called and said you were really depressed. If this is how you’re going to treat us, then I’m not coming back and we’ll celebrate with Bryan’s family again,” Kenna snapped.
“Your great-great-great-grandmother would be ashamed of you, Kenna,” Phoebe began.
“You’ve told me that every year since I was old enough to remember,” Kenna said. “I don’t care anymore.”
Phoebe got up. She pulled something that reminded Bryan of a good sized golden locket missing its front piece out of her pocket. She set it on the mantle. “Let’s just ask her then,” Phoebe said. She took a pin and poked her finger. She pressed it to the top of the frame.
Blood ran through a thin channel surrounding the portrait. It began to glow. Phoebe pulled back. The woman in the painting swiveled her head on her long neck, her dark curls bobbing in a light breeze. “I have not been woken up for some time,” she said, her voice strangely loud in the room. “What do you want?”
“Noble ancestor, my daughter Kenna has defied me. Tell her what a disappointment she is to you and the family,” Phoebe said.
The woman blinked. “Kenna? You mean the lovely young woman who put herself through college by working two jobs, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and keeping up a healthy social life? The one who’s now engaged to a young man very close to getting his Masters in some computer thing which we don’t understand that she’s been engaged to for the past four years? The one who has a steady job now and is working towards a down payment on her dream house with her soon-to-be husband? Why would we be disappointed in her?” The head swiveled again. “You are the one we’re disappointed in, Phoebe. You prattle on about the purity of our blood, yet you squander what intelligence our line has given you. You are a vain, shallow woman and deserve nothing of our praise or our blessings.” The blood faded and the image became still again.
No one spoke for several moments. “I’m going to celebrate with Bryan’s family,” Kenna said finally. “Now and for the rest of my life. If my accomplishments mean so little to you, then I don’t think it’s worth coming back.” She looked at Bryan. “Let me get my stuff and we can get out of here.”
Phoebe was still in shock. “Let me help you,” Nicolas said. Bryan, still a little shocked himself, could only nod and join the two of them in their hurried packing.