Coming Home 11

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On Boxing Day morning, Stellar burst into the bathroom as Thalassa was finishing brushing her teeth.

“Oh, Sis!” he said. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean to interrupt your privacy.”

She laughed. “I’m a mother. I’ve been a doctor at camps where the bathroom is an outdoor spigot. I don’t even know what privacy means anymore!”

“My sister the adventurer,” he said.

She pulled out her phone and showed him pictures she’d taken from her various posts. They weren’t the standard touring photos one might expect. Each of these was of a tiny detail: a garland of marigolds on a street in Calcutta; a gargoyle’s grimace on a stone eave in Brussels; street art lining an alley in Rio. It was like looking at the world through his sister’s eyes.

“You’re really doing it,” he said, “what you said you’d do when we were kids. Helping people all over the world.”

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“I know it’s selfish of me,” Thalassa said, “to put everything aside so I can follow my dream. But it feels right, so it can’t be all bad, right?”

Stellar chuckled. “The doctor who faces danger and hardship to help out others in places where most people wouldn’t dare to venture complaining of her own selfishness,” he said. “Now that’s a fine contradiction!”

“It’s just that I’m doing what I want to do,” she said, “in spite of everything else. In spite of other obligations.”

Tomas had joined them and stood patiently waiting for an opportunity to ask his uncle something.

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“I wouldn’t give it a second thought,” Stellar said. “Dreams come to us for a reason.”

He turned to his nephew.

“Uncle Stellar, do you remember that you said you might maybe show me where the owl sits up in the big pine tree overlooking everything?”

Stellar did remember. “Let’s go after lunch!”

“Just you and me?” asked Tomas.

“Yes! Just us! Next to me, you’ll be the only one to know where the owl sits!”

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Thalassa looked at her son, nestled in her brother’s arms. Why should she feel guilty thinking about leaving him here, when he’d have Stellar with him every day to take him on walks and wrap him in hugs, when her mom would fill him with cookies and stories?

That afternoon, while Tomas and Stellar hiked in search of the owl’s pine, Thalassa sat with Kumar.

“Are you having a good time here, Kumie?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Would you like to stay here longer? Would you like to stay while I left on assignment for a while?”

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“Where would you go?”

“To Turkey.”

“Could I come?”

“No,” she replied. “It’s not safe for children.”

“Is it safe for moms?”

“It will be safe enough,” she replied. “I will be careful. And there are people there who need me.”

“If I stayed, would Marshie and Tomas stay, too?”

They would.

“And would Grandma and Uncle Stellar be here?”

They would.

“And would you be back in time for my birthday?”

She would. If she could. She would do her best to be back after three months, which really wasn’t so very long, before his birthday, certainly.

“I suppose so,” he said. “It would be OK.”

Thalassa cleared the table and carried the dishes into the kitchen as Cinnamon came in.

“Grandma!” said Kumar, as he leapt up to give her a hug.

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Thalassa found Marshmallow downstairs playing with Princess Spirulina in the doll house.

“I’m thinking of going away for a little while,” Thalassa said. “Not for long. For a job. It’s to help people who are far away and who need a doctor.”

“OK,” said Marshmallow. “Can Princess Spirulina stay here?”

“Yes,” said Thalassa. “Does she want to?”

“Yes, but only if I stay with her.”

“You can stay,” said Thalassa. “Is that OK with you?”

“I guess so,” said Marshmallow. “Are my brothers staying?”

They were.

“Will Grandma and Uncle Stellar be here?”

They would be.

“And do you need to go?”

“I don’t know that I need to,” said Thalassa, “but I feel that it is the right thing.”

“Then I suppose you should,” said Marshmallow. “You always do the right thing, and it always works out right.”

Marshmallow turned to the doll. “Now don’t be sad, Princess Spirulina. You know that I will be here to look out for you. And who knows? Maybe Mom will come back with a little sister for you!”

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Thalassa went upstairs and turned on the computer. Why did doing the right thing have to be so hard? How could it be so confusing to even know what the right thing to do was?

If she looked inside, if she listened, what did her heart tell her to do? Go, it said. What was easy and what was hard, and what was right and what was wrong? And did any of it even matter? And if lives were saved and lives were lost, who was responsible and who was to blame?

She was just one tiny person on a globe of billions in a universe so vast that a heartbeat seemed hardly to matter.

And yet, sometimes a single keystroke could put in motion a chain of events that would change the lives of hundreds, and if her fingers were the ones to press the keys, so be it.

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Thalassa composed an email accepting the position in Turkey. She had faith. She had faith that she was offered the position for a reason, that her brother decided to move back home for a reason, that her children were so happy here for a reason, that her mother raised her to trust her heart for a reason.

She reread the email. She listened to the happy voices of her children playing in the hallway downstairs. And she clicked send.

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Coming Home 10

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On Christmas evening, after all the friends and neighbors left, when it was just the family in the big house again, Cinnamon found her daughter looking thoughtful at the dining room table.

Before she had a chance to join her, Stellar came in.

“Big day, huh, Sis?” he said, pulling up a chair, and as Cinnamon went into the kitchen to fetch a cookie, she felt her heart warm to see her two children together again, on Christmas night.

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When she returned, Marshmallow had joined them, and Stellar was telling her about a sculpture he was planning to start the next day.

“The idea comes from a rose,” he said, “but it will be massive, so it will be more like what a rose would look like to a bee.”

“Or to a butterfly?” she asked.

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Cinnamon smiled to think that Stellar would be here every night, talking about the next day’s sculpting or about finding the perfect stump on Jacques’ beach.

This had been a nearly perfect Christmas day. There had been only one melt-down, when poor Marshmallow, who’d barely slept a wink all night, collapsed in tears when Jacques’ son Max threatened to toss her new doll into the fire.

But Kumar and Tomas descended so quickly on Max, one rescuing the doll, the other pinning Max’s arms behind him, that, surprisingly, peace was restored before any of the adults had a chance to intervene.

Jacques called Max to him, and Stellar then engaged the boy in a chess game, and by the time Cinnamon dished up the Christmas supper, Marshmallow was sound asleep in the big chair by the fire, hugging her doll to her, while everyone else was joking and laughing again.

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Cinnamon remembered the year when Steve made Stellar the doll house. Thalassa was still a toddler back then, and while Cinnamon was fixing dinner, Thalassa had crawled into the doll house. She got stuck, and Steve had to remove the roof and half of the wall to get her out.

“It’s OK,” Stellar had said, as he handed his little sister scraps of dinner rolls dipped in soup. “You can live in here, and I will come every day to feed you.”

She hadn’t cried once, but had made these funny little cooing sounds, as if she were a tiny dove.

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“Are you all right, Ma?” Stellar asked, when it was just the two of them in the dining room.

“I am, indeed,” she replied.

“I bet you’re not used to this much commotion anymore,” he said.

“Not hardly,” she answered.

“Better get used to it, huh?” he said.

“Did your sister talk to you?”

“Yeah,” Stellar said. “I don’t think she’s made up her mind yet about the job. But I bet we both know what she’ll decide.”

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“Yes, we know our Thalsy, don’t we, Stel?”

Tomas walked into the room, wearing a huge grin.

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“I decided I will teach you my song,” he said to Cinnamon.

“Really?”

“For real,” he said.

And slowly, syllable by syllable, word by word, he taught her the song about the tiny butterfly who came out of the rose garden to see so much beauty on Christmas eve.

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“It’s a lovely song,” she said. “And do you know, this very afternoon, when the sun came out for a spell, I saw a monarch butterfly visit the milkweed. It must have been inspired by your song!”

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“I never thought I’d see a butterfly over here,” Tomas said. “Do you have lots?”

“We do,” said Cinnamon. “In the summertime, especially.”

“I hope I’m here to see them,” said Tomas.

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And Cinnamon realized that she hoped he would be there to see them, too.

To think: Just a few years ago, she’d assumed family Christmases were a thing of the past, unless she was adopted by neighbors and friends. But now her home was full to bursting with her own grandchildren, and with Thalassa and Stellar, too.

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She would have days of solitude again, this she knew, for if there was a constant in life, it was one’s own solitary presence. And yet! And yet it seemed that she might have to seek out her solitude, for now it seemed that the presence of others–young and precious others–might be her greatest present of this year!

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Coming Home 9

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“Tell me again how Christmas morning goes?” requested Marshmallow when Grandma came down to tuck her in.

“Why,” said Cinnamon, “all the little children sleep in until around noon, and then the grown-ups tiptoe downstairs and softly say to them, ‘Wake up, sleepy heads! It’s Christmas!'”

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“That’s not how it goes!” protested Marshmallow.

“Do you remember?” her grandmother asked. “You tell me!”

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“How can I remember?” said Marshmallow. “I’ve never had Christmas here before!”

“Well, you did,” said Cinnamon, “when you were about three.”

“Three? Why that’s the size of a peanut! How can I be expected to remember anything that happened when my brain was a little pea-brain of an acorn!”

“All right,” said Cinnamon. “Let’s see if I remember with my little acorn of a pea-brain…”

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Marshmallow took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

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“All the little children are so excited in the morning that they wake up before the first thrush begins to sing. And quiet as mice, they creep up the basement stairs to the first landing. Then, before going any further, they wait in silence broken only by giggles while, every so slowly, the sun rises. Once the first rays of the sun slide in through the window, the children creep across the landing to the next set of stairs, and then they slowly tiptoe up to their mama’s, uncle’s, and grandma’s room, where they burst in, shouting, ‘Merry Christmas!'”

“And what happens next?” asked Marshmallow.

“Then, everybody lines up, with the youngest one in front, and the oldest one in back.”

“That would be Tomas who’s youngest, and then me, and then Kumie. And you in the back. But who goes between, Mama or Uncle Stellar?”

“You’re mom’s behind Kumar, and then comes your uncle Stellar. Then each one reaches in front and covers the eyes of the person before them.”

“So only you can see?” asked Marshmallow.

“That’s right. And I call out the directions. ‘Straight ahead!’ ‘Slow down!’ ‘Now turn!’ ‘Step! Step! Careful!'”

“And do we make it down without falling?”

“We do! We might bump into a wall or two, but that’s half the fun!”

“And then what next?”

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“Next comes the stockings!” said Thalassa, who, with Tomas, had joined her daughter and mother.

“How do we open our stockings with our eyes closed?” asked Marshmallow.

“We don’t, silly!” said Thalassa. “We open our eyes, and there’s the tree all lit up with presents all around! And then we open the stockings.”

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“And while the children open stockings,” added Cinnamon, “I make breakfast!”

“Which involves cinnamon rolls and scrambled eggs and fresh orange juice and hot chocolate! And lots of coffee and tea for grown-ups who’ve stayed up wrapping presents all night!”

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“Then what?” asked Marshmallow.

“Then,” said Thalassa, “we all go for a long walk.”

“No! Not yet,” said Marshmallow. “What really happens?”

“We play football,” said Thalassa.

“Not yet!” Marshmallow insisted. “You’re forgetting something… after breakfast, then we…”

“Then we all gather in the living room,” said Cinnamon, “and the littlest one–”

“–that would be Tomas–”

“–chooses a present from under the tree and gives it to the person it’s for.”

“Then that person opens it, and chooses the next present, and gives it, and so on, until there are no presents left, and then we go for the long walk!” shouted Marshmallow. “And that’s Christmas morning!”

“Exactly!” said Thalassa.

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“Then I’m brushing my teeth so I can go to bed so the morning gets here sooner!”

When Marshmallow walked out, Thalassa giggled. “Nothing like the rehearsal before the big event!”

“You mean it’s not just a story?” said Tomas.

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“Not just a story at all!” said Cinnamon.

Tomas sat next to her.

“We had Christmas in summer when I was a little kid” he said. “I know a Christmas song. Do you want to hear it?”

Cinnamon did. Tomas sang very softly, for his brother Kumar was sleeping beside them in the bed.

“Borboleta pequenina,
Saia fora do rosal
Venha ver quanta beleza,
Hoje é noite de Natal!”

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“That’s a beautiful song,” said Cinnamon. “Will you teach it to us tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so,” said Tomas. “It’s in a language you wouldn’t understand. But you can teach me a song in your language, because I can understand it, too.”

“It’s a deal,” said Cinnamon. “Are you ready to brush your teeth and change into your PJs?”

“Not yet,” said Tomas. “I think I will sit up just a little bit and sing some more.”

Thalassa motioned to her mother to head back upstairs, and the two women left the little boy sitting on the edge of the bed, singing softly to himself the songs from his childhood far away.

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Coming Home 8

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Early in the morning on Christmas Eve, Thalassa found her mother alone in the kitchen.

“Have you got a minute, Ma?” she asked. “I’ve got something I need to talk to you about, and it’s neither simple nor easy.”

Her mother looked worried.

“It’s not bad!” Thalassa said quickly. “Or at least it doesn’t have to be. It’s an opportunity. For me. Or maybe even for all of us.”

“Well, in that case,” said Cinnamon, breaking into a smile and a sigh of relief and pleasure.

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“Clue me in, daughter-mine,” she said.

Thalassa smiled, more to herself than to her mother. She expected her mom to rush to embrace any opportunity, especially any opportunity that presented itself to her favorite and only daughter. But this one came with a price. This one came with the need to ask a huge favor.

Her mom looked like she could handle it. Thalassa had been pleasantly surprised by her mother’s health and spirits. The house and garden were well-kept and the kitchen well-stocked. Her mother seemed to have energy to spare.

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“I haven’t accepted it yet,” Thalassa began. She’d learned as a teen that if her mom felt like she was part of the decision-making process, it was a lot easier for her to get to do what she wanted.

“But you will,” replied her mom.

“I seriously haven’t decided,” said Thalassa.

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“Right,” said Cinnamon, “which is why you’re bringing it up now.”

“It’s a big deal,”Thalassa continued. “And it won’t just affect me. It’ll affect you and the kids, and even Stellar, too, I suppose.”

“What will affect me?” said Kumar who’d come in for his breakfast cookie.

“Something I’m thinking about,” replied Thalassa.

“As long as I get cookies for breakfast, everything’s OK by me!” Kumar chuckled.

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“I’m guessing this is a professional decision,” said Cinnamon. “About your job.”

“It is,” replied Thalassa. When Kumar took his cookie downstairs, she explained that she’d been offered a position through Doctors Without Borders at a refugee camp in Turkey. “They need my expertise,” she said.

“Then what’s the issue?”

“It’s not in a secure area. It’s dangerous. I can’t bring the kids.”

“Ah,” said Cinnamon.

“Yeah,” said Thalassa. “It’s been kind of scary a few times already. Calcutta was pretty rough. That’s why I took the administrative job in Brussels. It seemed better for all of us. But it’s not a good use of my skills, Ma, sitting behind a desk. My specializations can really help out there in the field. It’s just that, well. Those places are no places for kids.”

“So I guess that means you’re needing a safe place for them to stay,” said Cinnamon. “Does it mean that much to you to take the position?”

“Well, like I said, I haven’t decided yet. It’s not that long of an assignment–just three months. And I’m just checking my options to see if I can even consider it.”

“Right,” replied Cinnamon.

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Cinnamon washed her hands and poured herself a cup of tea.

“You know there’s that opening in the free clinic in town if you’re interested. They could use your expertise, too,” she said. “I know you always feel like you need to do what you need to do. I know you want to have the freedom to always be able to make the best decision you can. Your kids are important, and they need you. And there are sick people even here that could be helped by you. But I suppose you also feel that where the need is greatest, that’s where you need to be.” Cinnamon sighed. “Whatever you feel pulled to do, do it. Your kids can stay here with me and Stellar.”

Her mom sighed once more, a heavy sigh this time, and walked out of the kitchen.

There were needs, and there were needs, thought Thalassa. Her children would have their needs met here. Any other general practitioner could fill the opening at the free clinic. But there weren’t that many doctors with the specific combination of skills–medical, linguistic, clinical, personal, and psychological–to be able to serve at the refugee camp.

She wasn’t afraid of the danger for herself, and if her children were assured of a safe life here, then did it matter that much if she put herself in a position requiring extra vigilance while serving those who needed her?

Well, she didn’t have to make up her mind today. It was Christmas Eve and there were carols to sing and neighbors to visit and stories to tell before the big celebration tomorrow.

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Coming Home 7

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Kumar decided on a cookie for breakfast.

“You can have anything!” he told his sister. “Even ice cream.”

“No way,” she said. “You’re tricking me, Robber. No one has ice cream for breakfast.”

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“They do here!” said Kumar. “Why do you think our grandma’s name is Cinnamon? It’s because everything is sugar and spice!”

Marshmallow wasn’t so sure. She’d never heard of a place where you could choose anything for breakfast.

“It’s probably a trick,” she said, but Kumar was too busy enjoying his oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookie to agree.

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Marshmallow headed upstairs. Sure enough, there was her uncle Stellar, making a fresh batch of ice cream.

“Grandma, is it really truly true that I can have anything I choose for breakfast, even a cookie?”

“Yes,” said Cinnamon.

“Even ice cream?”

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“That’s what I’m having,” said Cinnamon.

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“In that case, I’ll have the same,” said Marshmallow, “on a cone with chocolate sauce.”

She had to admit, it made a delicious breakfast, and with the cone and everything, it didn’t leave her feeling wobbly afterwards, like too much sugar did.

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When she ran outside to play, she saw Uncle Stellar eating a double-decker chocolate ice cream cone.

“That your breakfast?” she asked him.

“More like lunch,” he said.

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She and her brothers spent the day racing along the beach, skipping stones, finding tiny crabs in tide pools, sticking their fingers in anemones, collecting striped and spotted shells, and making tiny paths out of blue and green pebbles for Princess Spirulina, Bug Puff, and Pony.

When at last they came inside at the end of the day, tired, cold, hungry, and full of all sorts of adventure and happiness, she felt ready for a hot plate of spaghetti with grated cheese and fresh breadsticks right out of the oven.

Her mom sat down with her own supper on a plate.

“Is that what you’re eating?” Marshmallow asked her.

“Yup.”

“What is it?”

“Marshmallow squares.” They both giggled.

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After dinner, Kumar and Tomas cleared the table and helped Cinnamon and Stellar wash the dishes and wipe the counters.

Marshmallow looked at the bright room, with its stacks of presents promising more good surprises to come, and lit candles that made her own heart sparkle with warmth.

“I love it here, Ma!” Marshmallow said. “Princess Spirulina never wants to leave.”

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Coming Home 6

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From the moment Thalassa called to say she and the children would be coming home for Christmas, Cinnamon had been longing for a heart-to-heart with her daughter. When Thalassa was very little, she and Cinnamon had tea parties every morning, and Cinnamon wished they could share secrets and tea again.

But Thalassa never sat down. From morning til night, she did the dishes, played with the children, prepared the meals, wrapped the presents, chopped the wood, and washed more dishes.

Cinnamon decided to settle for her grandchildren’s confidences. Marshmallow’s stories kept them all laughing.

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Most of the stories were about Princess Spirulina and the Robber Bridegroom.

“Remember when Princess Spirulina went to the market in the town square and the Robber Bridegroom was hiding in the vat of oil, and then when he jumped out, he was so full of oil he burped?”

“Wasn’t that the time that his burp blew up the whole of Cincinnati?” Kumar asked.

“No, no! You’re thinking of when he lost the hot dog contest! This was the time when he caused the tsunami and everybody had to hold onto driftwood and broken pieces of skyscrapers to survive the disaster!”

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“Is this a movie?” Cinnamon asked Thalassa when she came down to tell the kids to wash up for lunch.

“No,” said Thalassa. “It’s all their own making. Marshmallow’s been telling us Princess Spirulina stories since she could talk. It’s sort of their own folk culture.”

“And then the Robber Bridegroom raced out from the mosque, remember,  Kumie? Only it was time for Maghrib, and so when the bell rang, the Robber Bridegroom had to kneel, but Princess Spirulina kept on running and that’s when she escaped!”

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After lunch, Marshmallow said that she and her brothers would do the dishes.

“It’s like penance,” she said.

“Penance?” asked Cinnamon. “Have you been bad? What would you need to do penance for?”

“Oh, nothing,” said Marshmallow. “It’s just a Spirulina thing.”

Thalassa shrugged. “Don’t try to figure it out,” she told her mom. “They’ve got all kinds of shifting rituals. I can’t keep up!”

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“In that case, I’ll make us some cappuccinos,” said Cinnamon.

Tomas and Kumar giggled while they raced through the house collecting dirty dishes, and Marshmallow stood at the sink, dipping the plates into the sudsy water and chanting.

“Is she speaking Urdu?” Cinnamon asked.

“I think it’s her made-up language. Her brothers understand it. I don’t,” Thalassa said. “Let’s take our drinks outside, shall we, Ma?”

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Cinnamon poured the foam into her cup. Her children had been mischievous and clever, but she didn’t remember them quite as wrapped in their own private worlds of make-believe as her grandchildren seemed to be.

She supposed it must have something to do with all their travels.

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It felt warm outside for a late December afternoon.

“I ordered this for just for you,” Cinnamon said.

“What,” asked Thalassa, “the espresso beans?”

“No,” replied Cinnamon. “The weather.”

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“Thanks, Ma. I appreciate it.”

“Not a problem. The weatherman owes me.”

“No, I don’t mean the weather. I mean everything. Taking us in. Having everything set up for us. The kids have never had it so good.”

“Your kids really are amazing, Thalsy,” Cinnamon said. “You’ve done good.”

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Thalassa laughed. “I don’t think I had anything to do with it! It’s all in spite of, not because of.”

“Your dad used to say that,” Cinnamon said.

They fell silent as they sipped their drinks. How could Cinnamon express to her daughter what a miracle she’d been to her and Steve? One day, Thalassa must have been around seven, she wandered off while they were shopping in town. Cinnamon turned around to discover her daughter gone, but before she could even tell Steve, Stellar spoke up. “I know where she is, Ma,” he said. He led them outside where Mr. Benson, a man who lived in the park, leaned against the bakery. There was Thalassa, handing him a loaf of bread. She was always doing things like that.

A thrush sang. “It’s so good to be home,” said Thalassa.

A raven flew from the pine to the cedar.

“Well, I guess I’d better go check on the kids,” Thalassa said.

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Cinnamon sipped her cappuccino beside three empty chairs while the sun settled behind the woods and the shade stretched towards the house.

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Coming Home 5

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“I like it here, Grandma,” Marshmallow said. “Everything is clean and the food tastes good and the sheets smell like vanilla.”

“You’ve lived a lot of places, haven’t you, Marsha?”

“Yeah. Brussels was the best, but Rio and Calcutta were cool because if we hadn’t gone there, we wouldn’t have picked up Tomas and Kumie, and they belong with us. But it’s too bad that both those places were so stinky and noisy. But sometimes, Brussels was stinky, too. Like in the alleys. And London! London smelled like a monkey’s armpit!”

With all that moving about, Cinnamon wondered about the children’s schooling. Not that going to a traditional school was necessary! Her own children were home-schooled until Stellar decided he wanted to play soccer on the Windenburg Junior High team and Thalassa decided she wanted to ride the ferry in to town with her brother each morning. But they didn’t learn much at school, except sports and how to get along with other kids. The real learning–the botany, geometry, algebra, literature, music, art–they learned at home from Steve and her.

Thalassa reminded her so much of Steve. It wasn’t just the shape of her eyes, those high cheekbones, and that beautiful nose. It was in the way her mind worked, in the turn of phrase, even in the pauses between words and the way she looked up and to the right while visualizing the solution she was about to propose.

She could read her children well. Stellar, she could read for he was just like her. One look at him, and she felt what he felt. Thalassa she could read by relying on the nonverbal lexicon that Steve taught her.

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He would be so proud of her. He would be proud of both of them. He was always proud of Stellar, by default. Perhaps because Stellar was the first-born, but more likely because Stellar reminded Steve of Cinnamon, and Cinnamon had never had to work to impress her husband.

But Steve was always so hard on himself, and he naturally extended those impossibly high standards to his daughter, his tiny replica. Outwardly, she seemed to thrive under his expectations, rising to the top of her class her first year in school and maintaining that position through graduating valedictorian. Steve was thrilled when she received full scholarship to the medical school of her choice, and when she graduated, he pushed her to choose some arcane specialty. But he was gratified when her general practice brought her a position with Doctors without Borders.

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Still, Cinnamon felt relived to have her daughter here, in this country, no matter how useful and humanitarian her work was.

“You remember the free clinic in town?” Cinnamon asked her daughter over early breakfast. “They do such good work there.”

“Yes, I’ve been keeping up with them,” Thalassa said. “I gave a presentation on their alternatives to vaccination, actually.”

“I heard they have an opening,” Cinnamon said.

“Right,” said Thalassa. “Dr. Barnes retired.”

“Ma, Uncle Stellar says he’s taking me to the beach after breakfast,” Kumar said. “We’re looking for sculpting stumps!”

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When Cinnamon carried fresh sheets to the upstairs bedroom, she found Thalassa on the computer.

“Don’t let me disturb you!” she said, while she made the bed.

“Oh, it’s fine, Ma,” said Thalassa. “I’m just checking email.”

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“Anything interesting?”

“There is, actually,” replied Thalassa. “About work.”

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Coming Home 4

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Cinnamon brought her coffee and a dog-eared copy of Persuasion down to the basement where her grandchildren played.

Tomas had laid claim to Thalassa’s old red Ferrari.

“Drive like this,” he said, “up hills, down the ways, over the valley, round the curve. Don’t worry. You can’t crash because Master-Supremo-Driver-of-the-Year is behind the wheel! Together, we win!”

Marshmallow found Stellar’s pony, dragon, and princess doll.

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“This is a friendly dragon,” she said. “You can tell because he’s got tiny wings and a little grin. You’re friendly, aren’t you, fella? He lives in the back with the swamp buckets, don’t you, Bug Puff?”

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Cinnamon pretended to read while the children played.

“Do you like this house, Princess Spirulina?” Marshmallow asked the doll. “It’s huge, isn’t it? And everything is clean and it smells nice and it’s very warm, isn’t it? But don’t get too attached. You never know when there might be a new assignment and you and the pony and Dragon Bug Puff will have to move. But it will be OK. Because even if you move to some place crowded and smelly, and even if there’s no water and not much food and you have to pee in a bush, and everybody is standing around looking sad, it will be OK because you will all be together. And besides. You’re strong.”

“But I don’t want to leave,” said Princess Spirulina in a very high and sweet voice. “I want to stay here forever and always.”

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Jacques stopped by to see if Cinnamon needed anything from the store on the mainland, for he was heading in to do some shopping the next day, and he ended up staying the afternoon to play with the children.

“Your house never used to be so messy,” Jacques said. “You’ve got toys laying everywhere!”

“That’s because before you were the only one playing with the action figures,” laughed Cinnamon. “Now you’ve got to share! That’s what you’re really complaining about, isn’t it?”

“We’re good at sharing, aren’t we?” said Thalassa.

“I am not so good at sharing,” said Marshmallow. “I only pretend to be when people are looking. But when I’m by myself, everything is mine, mine, mine!” She laughed and Cinnamon had to join in with her.

“Well, as long as you’re honest with yourself!” she said.

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The children talked all through the evening meal. Tomas told the entire plot of a movie he watched before supper, where a mouse went to space and founded a colony until they discovered that the planet they lived on was made of cheese, and then he ate it, and they all fell into the sea. “But it was OK for there was a friendly sea monster who only pretended to eat them, for in reality, he spit them out onto the beach, and everyone was happy for ever and never went back to space.”

“But they did look up at the stars,” said Kumar.

Marshmallow was full of ideas for a puppet show that she wanted to put on the next day with her brothers, but the show was intended to be a surprise, so she spoke in riddles that nobody understood.

“It’s for the spoon!” she said, winking at Tomas. “Which rhymes with… ”

“Tune?”

“Agh! No! The Moooo… ”

“Like a cow?” said Kumar.

Marshmallow buried her head in her hands.

After supper, the family moved into the living room. Tomas found Stellar’s modeling clay.

“What’s this for?” he asked his uncle.

“Sculptors use it,” Stellar said, “to make studies.”

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Cinnamon gazed at her two children. It was quiet. Tomas worked the clay. Kumar and Marshmallow lay on their bellies on the rug, coloring in a Santa coloring book. Thalassa had put on Bob Dylan’s Christmas CD, and she sang along under her breath.

Cinnamon had so much she wanted to talk to her children about, and so much she didn’t want to talk to them about, and most of what she wanted to say and what she didn’t want to say revolved around the same subject: Steve. Or rather, the space that Steve used to occupy, which was now glaringly empty.

“I notice that Jacques’s been around a lot,” Thalassa said.

Stellar shot a quick look at his mom, then turned his attention back to the clay that Tomas was forming into what looked like the bust of an archaic military dictator.

“Who is that?” Stellar asked his nephew. “Castelo Branco?”

“Napoleon,” said Tomas.

“Mom?” asked Thalassa. “I said Jacques seems to be by a lot.”

“Oh, yes,” said Cinnamon. “He’s been a good friend. You know, he always was a good friend, even when you and Stellar were littlies. Do you remember his wife, Edie? She was lovely. Anyway, he’s been helping around, doing things that need doing, and sometimes, I return the favor and help around his place, doing what I can do, too. He seems to find comfort, knowing that Luna has a woman she can talk with, even if it’s an old woman like me.”

“You’re not old,” said Stellar. “And I’m glad you’re not alone.”

“What’s that you made?” Thalassa asked Tomas.

He handed her Napoleon.

“The ruler of the free world,” said Tomas. “Napoleon Bustanut.”

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Soon it was time to tuck in the children. When Cinnamon finished brushing her teeth, she heard Kumar and Stellar on the landing.

“Where do you live?” Kumar asked his uncle.

“I used to live high in the mountains,” he said, “where the wolves sing and the pines moan.”

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“That sounds interesting,” said Kumar. “And where do you live now?”

“Now I live here,” replied Stellar.

“I think you are very lucky,” said Kumar.

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Coming Home 2

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Sometimes an hour feels like five.

Cinnamon finished her nightscape painting.

One night, when Stellar was about five, he’d wandered out after Steve and Cinnamon had gone to bed. He had a habit of doing that. Steve said not to worry. They knew all their island neighbors, and there was nothing to fear.

Usually, Stellar came back after fifteen or twenty minutes, and crawled into bed with them, smelling like the night sky. But one time, she waited after hearing the front door close behind him, and he didn’t return. Fifteen minutes turned to twenty. Twenty minutes turned to half an hour. At thirty-five minutes, Cinnamon couldn’t stand any more. She woke Steve.

“We’ve got to find Stellar!”

The pulled their jackets on over their pajamas, slid on their boots, and headed out. The moon lighted the paths. She ran to the beaches, where silver waves lapped the shore. There was her son, sitting on a rock, looking out over the bay.

Steve came up behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders. They watched in silence. Their son stood on the rock, rose his arms to the moon, and sang.

Steve pulled her back to the path, where they sat on a log and waited until Stellar completed his strange ritual.

“I swear that child is Pan,” said Steve.

When their son saw them sitting beside the path, he waved. Without a word, they walked home.

Cinnamon resisted looking at the clock. It will only make time pass more slowly. After a life living on the island, she’d learned you can’t rush the ferry. She baked a batch of oatmeal cookies.

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She pruned the holiday bonsai.

Stellar had always loved trees. More than once she’d found him talking to the pines and cypress that grew on the island. He seemed to keep track of each one, as if he knew them by name.

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He’d probably take his time walking up from the ferry dock, following his favorite paths to greet the trees that had been waiting for his return.

She lit the candles, set the platters of sweets on the table, took in the festivity, and headed downstairs to make up the beds for her grandchildren who would arrive tomorrow.

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She used to love tucking her children in at night. When they were little, they seldom slept the night through in their own beds, usually joining her and Steve in the big bed upstairs by daybreak, but they started out in the silent dark of their own rooms. She would fill the rooms with fairy tales, talking and singing softly while her children’s eyes slowly shut.

She wondered if her daughter sang her children to sleep each night.

While she spread the quilt on the last bed, she heard the bell ring as the front door opened.

“Ma?” Stellar called.

“Down here, son!” And there he was, smelling like pines and salt spray and the cold winter night.

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“You made it!”

They talked without stopping, about nothing and everything, while they walked up the stairs.

He grabbed a cookie.

“I made taco casserole,” Cinnamon said. “Do you want a real meal?”

“Sure!” he said, gobbling down the cookie.

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Since it was just the two of them, they ate in the living room.

“Missed your cooking, Mom,” Stellar said.

Cinnamon wanted to say that she’d missed him, but she didn’t want to start to cry, and she didn’t want to accidentally make him feel guilty for not coming home more frequently, so she settled for talking about the meal.

“I used paprika. Can you tell? Usually, I use cayenne, but Jacques, he says cayenne puts him on edge, so he bought some paprika that I can use when I make meals that he’ll share, and I guess I forgot to restock the cayenne, for I couldn’t find it tonight, and what do you think? Is the paprika OK?”

“It’s good, Ma,” Stellar said. “I kinda like not burning my tongue.”

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“You look good,” she said. “That life at the national park agrees with you.”

“I quit my job.”

“You what?”

Stellar had worked as a ranger for the National Park Service since getting his master’s degree in botany. Knowing his love for trees, this seemed like the ideal career for him.

“I got tired of being a cop,” he said. “That’s what the job’s become. Peace officer for the public lands. But it doesn’t feel like keeping peace. It feels like stirring up trouble. I don’t want to carry anymore.”

“You had to carry a weapon?”

Stellar nodded. “Went to cop school, too. I’m done.”

“What will you do?” she regretted asking as soon as she said it. Of course there were a million things her son could do, and he would, of course, know what those were, and if he decided he needed a change, no one was better than him to know what that change might be.

“You remember those gnarled stumps that wash up on the beach?” he asked.

She did.

“Are they still there?”

They were. Hundreds of them.

“I want to sculpt,” he said. “I got something to say, but I can only say it through wood. I want to stay here, and I want to be a sculptor.”

So that was why Stellar had been vague about how long he would be staying.

“Do you mean you want to move back home?” Cinnamon asked.

He did.

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Coming Home 1

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Cinnamon Gran put on a CD of a Mozart string quartet, grabbed a collection of Cory Doctorow short stories, and sat to enjoy a quiet evening. This might be her last taste of solitude for a while. Her son was coming tomorrow and her daughter and three grandchildren the day after.

“I don’t know how long I’ll stay,” her son, Stellar, said. Her daughter, Thalassa, had been just as vague.

Feast or famine. Stellar and Thalassa had separately stopped by a few times in the years since Steve’s death, but, aside from the funeral, never at the same time, and never longer than a day or two.

Cinnamon hadn’t seen her granddaughter, Marshmallow, since Christmas four years ago, the last Christmas they’d had with Steve. She’d never even met her two grandsons.

Her daughter served with Doctors Without Borders, and she’d picked up two sons along the way, Tomas from an orphanage in Rio, and Kumar in Calcutta. How a single doctor managed to care for three young children, Cinnamon had no idea.

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Her children had grown up here, in Steve’s family home. A painter, who worked mostly for commissions, she’d been lucky to stay home while the children were young. Steve was a professor at the university in town, and he, too, was home all the summer days and holidays.

Every Christmas, Steve took Stellar and Thalassa into the woods to select the Christmas tree. One year, they returned with armfuls of branches.

Stellar had decided they couldn’t chop down a tree.

“We’ll just top it off,” Steve said, “and then the next lowest branch will take off as the leader and grow towards the sunlight.”

But Stellar refused. “It’s not fair to the tree!” he insisted. So Steve drilled holes into an old shovel handle, and they inserted the branches. It was a beautiful tree.

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Another year, they celebrated Christmas in summer. Thalassa had been ill the previous winter, and so on Christmas Day, they managed not much more than veggie soup and the quiet opening of presents. By summer, Thalassa was healthy again, and one summer afternoon, Steve came into the house with the top of a pine.

“We need Christmas,” he said. They set up the tree outside, stringing it with garlands of birdseed and tiny apples. Cinnamon roasted chanterelles, potatoes, onions, and carrots. They took the feast outside, and while they ate, finches and towhees flocked to the tree.

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Steve taught her that every Christmas was different. After his passing, she couldn’t bear to think of the holiday for a few years. Then one year, she went to her friend and neighbor Jacques’ on Christmas Day, and last year, she pulled out the decorations once again, and now this year, it would be Christmas with family once again.

On the morning of the day when Stellar was expected, Jacques and three other neighbors came by to help string the lights.

“I’m a natural on a ladder,” said Joaquin.

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“And I’m naturally strung out,” joked Sergio.

“Then I guess we’ve got our light-stringing team!” said Cinnamon.

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While the younger men hung the lights, Jacques walked back to his house and returned with a plate of fresh fruitcake, just as Bjorn and Cinnamon finished setting out the last of the outdoor decorations.

“All this work builds up an appetite,” Jacques said.

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Cinnamon invited her neighbors inside.

“Let me dish up the treats,” she said, “your rewards for your hard work!”

Lovely neighbors, she thought. And if they are so lovely, then why does her heart ache so to hear the men’s laughter roll in from the dining room? Shouldn’t it make her miss him less to have the others around?

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“Would you like cookies?” she called to them.

“No,” called Jacques from the dining room table. “We just want you! Come get your fruitcake, ma cherie!”

“Speak for yourself, Jacques!” yelled Joaquin. “Yes! We want cookies!”

“It takes no time at all to bake them,” said Cinnamon. “Amuse yourselves. I’ll be right there.”

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She felt grateful for the excuse of baking to let her steal a few more moments alone. This was all it took to shake the sudden onset of grief. By the time she pulled the tray out of the oven, she was smiling again. Her son would be arriving soon, and she had such kind neighbors to help!

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Joaquin and Bjorn had left. “There is a futbol match on tele,” Sergio explained. “They are at Bjorn’s to watch it.”

“Don’t you want to watch it, Sergio?”

“No. It’s not my team,” he replied.

“It is my team,” said Jacques. “But why would I watch the game when I could be in this lovely home eating freshly baked cookies with charming friends?”

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When evening came, Sergio had to leave to catch the ferry to town, and Jacques had supper to prepare for his own children.

Cinnamon went to her easel where she could settle her excitement with every stroke of the satin brush. The next ferry would bring her son!

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Author’s note: This story is inspired by a beautiful build, Joyeux Noel, by ShannonSimsFan. When I saw the home open house on Shannon’s blog, I knew I wanted to write a story about a family finding Christmas, and each other, in this home. The house is available for download on the The Gallery!

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