Some days later, though, after the first snowfall of the season, I found my footsteps turning that way again, one evening after I left the library just before closing. I didn’t consciously realize I was there until I recognized the house and the minivan in the driveway. And without much thinking about it, I walked up to the house (now decorated with colored lights for Christmas) and looked in the windows. The living room was empty; there was a Christmas tree up, but it seemed pretty bare, with just a handful of scattered ornaments. Both boys were in the older boy’s bedroom, playing some kind of video game — I couldn’t get a good look at the screen, at that angle — and Lauren was in the kitchen, fixing supper. When I walked around the front of the house again after looking in the den windows, there was Brandon just pulling up and getting out of his car. On impulse, I followed him in. I would just hang out as they ate supper, I decided; it would feel kind of like being back home with Mom and Dad and Kiara. I told myself I wouldn’t stay after they went to bed.
I helped Lauren out a little, cleaning up after her as she finished cooking supper. When she called everyone to supper, I sat down with them and listened as they chatted about their days at work and school. Again, I started feeling so homesick that I cried. “I miss my mom so much,” I sobbed, “and Dad and Kiara...” I wanted a hug from my mom, but I’d settle for one from Lauren, and I knew I wasn’t going to get that, either.
After supper, I washed the pots and pans and loaded the dishwasher before any of them could start on it. They didn’t notice me working, and later I heard Lauren commend Dustin for doing the dishes without being asked; he looked a little confused for a moment and then said, “Sure, no problem.”
I sat in the living room with Lauren and Brandon for a while, until the boys had gone to bed and they started getting amorous. Then I started toward the front door — and hesitated.
Maybe it was wrong, but I turned back, went down the hall to the bedrooms, and slipped into the dead girl’s room. She wasn’t using it. And I could use a reminder of Kiara. I curled up with her koala plushie and lay there quietly, remembering everyone I’d lost — those who’d disappeared and those who’d forgotten I ever existed.
I slipped into a fugue state after a while, like I did sometimes when walking long distances at night. It felt very different from actual sleep, though. When I became fully aware again, it was morning and the family was stirring, getting ready for work and school. I put the koala plushie back in its place among the others arranged on the shelf over the bed and got up to listen in on the breakfast conversation and help clean up after breakfast.
Once everyone was gone, and I’d finished the breakfast dishes, I put all the dirty clothes in the washing machine, then sat down in the easy chair to read, picking up the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
where I’d left off.
I didn’t leave again for several days. When I went for a walk the following weekend, I came back to the house before evening and sat at the table while they ate supper, then washed the dishes as usual. December wore on and they kept decorating the Christmas tree, putting on a few ornaments every night after supper. I kept cleaning the house when everyone was out, and reading through the books from the dead girl’s shelf during the night when everyone was asleep. On the flyleaf of a collection of fairy tales, I found this:
For Kaitlyn, from Aunt Jessica
So that was her name. She reminded me even more of Kiara after that.
One of the fairy tales in the collection talked about brownies, fairies that live in people’s houses and help with the cleaning, in exchange for a bowl of milk every night; it warned that you must never thank a brownie, or it would go away and never come back. I smiled and wondered if that was what I was now. But obviously I didn’t need milk, or anything else, and if one of the family thanked me — which would require noticing me, or at least what I’d been doing — I would have wept for joy. Still, maybe someone like me was the basis for the brownie legends?
After I’d been living there a week, I discovered something else: three spiral-bound notebooks containing Kaitlyn’s diary. I didn’t read them, though; that felt like a step too far.
Christmas drew nearer, and the tree filled up with ornaments, and sometimes I saw Brandon or Lauren coming in with a shopping bag that they hid away on the top shelf of their bedroom closet — Christmas gifts for the boys, I figured. School let out for Christmas break and the boys were home all day, outdoors playing for a little while and holed up in Dustin’s room playing video games most of the day. If they heard the washer and dryer running, or heard me vacuuming, they didn’t comment on it. Then, the Saturday before Christmas, Brandon went somewhere with the boys, and Lauren spent several hours wrapping presents. The menfolk came back with shopping bags of their own — gifts for their mom, I guessed, and indeed the boys spent some time inexpertly wrapping things in Dustin’s bedroom that evening while Lauren was cooking.
I thought about giving them something myself, but I couldn’t, not without stealing something.
Finally Christmas Eve arrived. They hadn’t seemed like a super religious family — they’d gone to church only one Sunday out of the weeks I’d lived with them. But they gathered in the living room after supper, and after they hung up the last few ornaments, they took turns reading a few verses each from the Christmas stories in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Then Brandon pulled a book of poems off the shelf and read “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, and they sang Christmas carols off and on, in between further conversation, for an hour or so. And the conversation turned toward Kaitlyn — the first time I’d ever heard any of them mention her. They shared their memories of her, and cried a lot, and hugged each other. I wanted to join in the hug, but continued to sit by myself in a corner of the room until I got too uncomfortable with watching their grief, and got up to slip away to Kaitlyn’s bedroom. I restlessly picked up the collection of fairy tales I’d been reading and read one, then another. I heard soft voices from the hallway, the parents wishing the boys goodnight, and then quiet for a long time, and then soft sounds again, whispers I couldn’t make out. They were bringing out the Christmas presents from the bedroom closet, I figured. The boys, or at least Dustin, seemed a little old to believe in Santa Claus, but I remembered that Mom and Dad had continued setting out mine and Kiara’s Christmas presents in the middle of the night for several years after Kiara found out there was no Santa. I put down the fairy tale anthology and hugged Kiara’s — I mean Kaitlyn’s koala plushie again, weeping silently.
How could I still cry when I didn’t drink or pee or sweat anymore, I wondered?
Then the door opened, and I jumped up, startled. Nobody but me had opened the door to Kaitlyn’s bedroom since I’d moved in. Brandon and Lauren stood in the door, looking in; it didn’t seem to occur to them that I had the light on.
“It’s been almost three years,” Brandon said. “Do you think it might be time to... well, use the room for something else? Give Kaitlyn’s books and stuffed animals to her cousins, and...”
“Maybe in the spring,” Lauren said. “I think it would be easier to bear in the spring. Let me have this for the rest of the winter.”
“Okay,” Brandon said, and closed the door on me.
Should I move out when they cleaned out Kaitlyn’s bedroom, I wondered? It wasn’t like I needed the bed for sleep, though. I could read in the middle of the night on the sofa just as well as here, and find things to read at the library as well as on the family’s other shelves. But maybe I’d stayed here long enough. I was still thinking about that when something very strange happened:
I fell asleep.
It wasn’t just a fugue state like I’d experienced every few days, sometimes while walking and sometimes sitting still. This was actual, simon-pure sleep, complete with dreams — a weird jumble of things I’d been reading about, things I’d experienced recently, and things from long-ago memories. I woke up during the night feeling cold for the first time in months, and drew over me the sheets and bedspread that I hadn’t needed before, then promptly fell asleep again.
I woke again from a dream of going to see a movie with Kiara and the Petrov girls, and finding it was sold out, and going next door to watch a race instead — the jockeys were riding a mix of different animals, not just horses. I was cheering on a petite woman riding a bison when I woke up, hearing the ringing of bells. I was disoriented — I hadn’t slept or dreamed in some time, and had forgotten what it was like. And when I remembered where I was, that Kiara was gone and the Petrov sisters had never heard of me, and that I was an invisible squatter in someone’s home — a brownie, to put the best possible face on it — I grabbed the koala plushie and hugged it to my chest. I felt like I was going to cry — but then I felt something strange. The plushie pressed against my chest was brushing up against... something I hadn’t had before. I sat up and realized that I was wearing pastel green pajamas, where I’d gone to bed nude — and that I had breasts, something I certainly hadn’t had last night or at any previous time.
Then the door opened and Lauren’s smiling face looked in. “Merry Christmas, sweetie. Want to come see what ‘Santa Claus’ brought you?” I sat there in shock — I’d barely begun to process the fact that I was a girl now, instead of the sexless brownie I’d been for the last month or more, and then came this second shock, far greater: Lauren could see me.
I burst into tears, weeping for joy.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Lauren said, rushing to my side, sitting down, and putting her arms around me.
“J-just a nightmare,” I said. “I’ll be okay in a minute.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie. That’s not a good way to start Christmas. But you’ll be fine once you wake up good. Come on, let’s not make Dustin and Mitchell wait too long to start opening presents.”
I wiped away my tears with my sleeve and smiled at her. “Okay, Mom. Merry Christmas.”
I was in a daze as I followed her into the living room, seeing the array of presents sprawling under the tree, and hearing “Merry Christmas, Kaitlyn,” from Dustin and Mitchell and Brandon — from Dad, I reminded myself. There were eight or ten presents for me, too, some labeled “From Santa Claus”, some “From Mom and Dad,” and some from Dustin and Mitchell. There were also things I’d supposedly bought for Mom and Dad and my new brothers, which they opened in due course as the morning wore on and Mom brought us mugs of hot chocolate — it was the first thing I’d tasted besides my own tears in almost two months.
I had a lot to be thankful for, and a lot to figure out. First priority, after the Christmas festivities wound down a bit, would be to read through every word of Kaitlyn’s diaries. Then to get onto Kaitlyn’s laptop and discreetly google some information about feminine hygiene. But for now, I just sipped my hot chocolate, tore open another present when it was my turn, and basked in my new family’s love. I had a feeling, somehow, that Mom and Dad and Kiara were somewhere like this, or would be soon — slipping into the life of another family, taking the place of someone they’d lost. I silently wished them a Merry Christmas, wherever and whoever they were now.