Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
December 23, 1938

Joy to the world and all that rot, Vivian thought. She tossed a handful of tinsel on the towering spruce in the corner of the den and sighed. The last thing she wanted to do was put on a happy face for her mother's Christmas party, but that was precisely what she was expected to do this evening.

"You missed a spot."

"Hmm?"

"Right there." Vivian's younger brother, Everett, nodded his auburn head toward a gaping swath of green near right front center. It was the only spot on the eight-foot tree that Vivian hadn't managed to cover in gaudy silver tinsel. She dipped her hand in the box, grabbed a handful of the shiny strands, and tossed them haphazardly at the void.

Everett glanced sidelong at her, one eyebrow raised. "Say, Mrs. Claus. Who curdled your cream?"

Vivian sighed and dropped the box of tinsel to the floor.

"I don't know about you, but this party is the last thing I want to be doing tonight. Especially when Mother's invited her new...her new..." She flapped her hand as she searched her mind for an appropriate word for her mother's new companion, Oskar Heigel. Stray bits of tinsel floated lazily from her fingers to the Oriental rug. 

Everett watched her with a frown. "Boyfriend?" he supplied.

Vivian wrinkled her nose.

"I know," he said. "It's absurd."

Vivian knew he meant both the idea and the term. Everett, five years younger than Vivian, was a sophomore at Northwestern. She didn't see him often, but Vivian was glad he was home now. He was the only one that could possibly understand how uncomfortable this situation made her. Their mother expressing romantic interest in a man other than their father was awkward, and it seemed sudden, somehow, even nearly eight years after their father's death.

Everett shrugged, then leaned down to fit the plug into the socket. The blue, green, and red lights strung around the tree blinked to life. Everett swept his arm out in a ta-da motion. Then he stood back and eyed their handiwork with a critical air. "Well, what do you think?"

Vivian blew air out over her protruding bottom lip, ruffling her bangs. "I think it's a garish spectacle," she said.

"Well, you know Mother's motto. The Bigger the Better."

Vivian laughed in spite of her mood. That was true. When it came to Christmas trees, their mother favored the grand. But this year's specimen was frankly ridiculous. It had been delivered that morning by two burly men who'd dragged it through the house, trailing needles everywhere. They'd had to saw off the bottom two feet to make it fit, and it still brushed the plaster ceiling.

She leaned forward and inhaled deeply. It did smell heavenly though: pine and sap and the earthy dampness of thawing mud. That smell brought every Christmas of her childhood to the surface of her memory in an instant.

"It was Father's fault," Everett said. "Indulging her like that with her very first tree. Set a bad precedent."

Vivian followed her brother's eyes to their mother, who was fussing at the refreshment table on the other side of the room. If Vivian wanted any indication of how she would look in twenty-odd years, she need look no further than Julia Witchell. Vivian had inherited her mother's petite stature, her strawberry-blond hair, and her soft brown eyes. It wasn't a terrible prospect, honestly.

People often said they looked more like sisters than mother and daughter—much to Julia's pleasure and Vivian's chagrin. But her mother's outwardly pleasant face belied a fierceness of character and a tendency toward perfectionism that was most often aimed squarely at Vivian—though others often found themselves in the crosshairs. Vivian watched as her mother pointed an accusing finger at the tray of hors d'oeuvres. The target of her mother's displeasure at the moment appeared to be the housekeeper, Mrs. Graves.
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