Sheldon blinked his eyes open. It was nearly-pitch black in the room. The only illumination came from the faint glow of a street lamp across the road and the red 3:56 glowing on the bedside alarm clock. So why was he awake? This was their second night in Boston, and he had no trouble sleeping the night before. He wasn't hungry and didn't need to use the bathroom.

Maybe he had subconsciously heard an unfamiliar sound. With 12 people under one roof, the probability that someone was awake was high. If he wasn't so tired, he would calculate those odds. It wouldn't surprise him if one of the children had woken up in the hopes of getting a peek at Santa.

He mentally shrugged, fluffed his pillow and nestled back into it, then closed his eyes. As he waited for sleep to consume him again, he was startled by a light kick to his leg. Just Amy shifting in her sleep. Maybe that's what had woken him in the first place. The kick was soon followed by another then another.

"I'm sorry," Amy mumbled into her pillow.

Sheldon kissed her cheek, slung his arm over her waist, and nuzzled her hair with his nose.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled louder, a tinge of sadness in her voice.

Sheldon still wasn't very good at discerning emotional cues, except when it came to his wife. He had assumed she was apologizing for kicking him, but now it seemed as though she was talking to someone else. It could just be a bad dream, but his brain was telling him it was more than just a dream. "Amy," he called quietly. When she failed to respond, he tapped her arm. "Amy."

There was no response other than a continuous repetition of "I'm sorry's". Afraid this behavior would escalate into a night terror, he tried again, shaking her gently. "Amy, you're okay. It's safe."

She opened her eyes, twisted her head around, and stared at him. Even in the dimly-lit room, he could see the haunted look, and it scared him. "Sheldon?" She asked in a shaky voice.

"I'm right here; you're safe," he whispered more calmly than he felt.

Amy's eyes darted around the room, eventually resting on her husband's. "It wasn't just a dream."

"What wasn't just a dream?"

"This," she murmured, her hand gesturing to the room.

"I don't follow."

"This... here... Boston..." She struggled to sit up against the headboard.

He furrowed his brow. "Yes, being in Boston is real, but what are you afraid of?"

"I ruined another holiday. First Thanksgiving and now Christmas."

"You didn't ruin anything."

"Yes, I did. My presence is making everyone uncomfortable."

Sheldon propped his head on one hand and stroked her arm with the other. "Nothing that happened is your fault."

"If I hadn't been here, the awkward silence at lunch would not have happened. My existence makes my family uncomfortable. I ruined everyone's lives," she sniffled.

"Amy what are you saying? Are you saying that you wish you never existed?"

"I just wish the circumstances had been different. I was a burden to my mother growing up, and now I'm making my dad's family uncomfortable."

"Your parents love you. Your mom has an odd way of showing it, but I know she does. And your dad does too. He accepted you right from the beginning, even before he was positive he was your father."

She snorted. "He did, but Luke didn't."

"It didn't take him that long. It was just a shock to learn he had another sister. Now he adores you; he looks up to you. Carrie too."

"And yet she avoided answering Hayden's question."

"No offense, but your niece and nephews are average intelligence for their age. It's doubtful they would understand the complexities of your family dynamics. Even Leah had questions about conception and pregnancy, so I highly doubt the little ones would know anything about the topic. Perhaps it was the only explanation she could come up with that didn't create mass confusion."

"Maybe you're right. Perhaps I've been looking at this emotionally when I should be thinking more logically. Thanks, Sheldon." She planted a soft kiss on his lips then snuggled against him and drifted into a peaceful sleep.

xxx

Leah heard a soft knock on her door. She squinted at the clock and was surprised to see it was almost 8 a.m. How long had she been sleeping? She hadn't checked the time after her last attempt at trying to make sense of her list, but it must have been well past her bedtime.

Another knock sounded at her door. "Leah, wake up. Pancakes are almost done," Amy informed her.

"I'll be out soon."

Today would be another busy day. Immediately following breakfast, they would open presents, then it was off to church for Christmas mass. Her grandparents weren't as religious as Meemaw Mary, opting to attend services mainly during the major holidays, but unlike her parents, they believed in the season's deity, as evidenced by the tabletop nativity scene on the fireplace mantle.

After church would be lunch, leftovers from yesterday's meal. Then she wasn't sure what to expect. The last time they had visited over Christmas, her cousins were too young to play with her, so she spent the day coloring in the new coloring book she got from Uncle Luke and Auntie Jessica, while she half listened to the adults talk in the living room. What had they discussed? Had there been clues to her questions about the relationship between her mom's biological parents? If only she had paid more attention. Maybe she would get another chance to listen in today.

She finger combed her hair and gazed at her reflection in the dresser mirror. Satisfied, she decided to sneak in a little reading until she was summoned for breakfast.

November 21, 2018

Mom wanted to hear our news the moment she stepped through the door, but I convinced her we needed to eat first.

Sheldon and I left work early so we would have time create the perfect homecooked meal with all of her favorite foods. We roasted a chicken and served it with garlic mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and a garden salad with the grape tomatoes from the farmers market that she likes. I held my breath waiting for her to criticize our cooking skills, but she actually complimented us!

After we cleared the table, I ushered her to the couch. On the drive home, we had rehearsed how we would broach the topic and decided it was best to just come out and say it, rather than beating around the bush. I squeezed Sheldon's hand as the words came out of my mouth - "You're going to be a grandma."

Mom sat stock still for the longest moment in history. I was afraid she'd had a stroke, but she quickly recovered. I asked how she felt about the news. Instead of answering my question, she commended us on waiting until we were married to get pregnant. She's one to talk, but I held my tongue. Even if we had gotten pregnant before we married, at least we've been in a committed, loving relationship.

"Leah, breakfast time!" Sheldon called.

Leah sighed. She was just getting to the good part. "Coming!" She hid the diary under her pillow and joined her parents in the hall.

Without being asked, Leah immediately took her seat at the kiddie table. Her cousins were already there, complaining about having to wait to see what Santa brought.

"Did you see him?" Logan asked his table mates.

"Not last night, but Mommy took me to see him at the mall," Jasmine declared.

"Mama, why didn't you take us to see Santa?" Hayden pouted.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie. Maybe next year."

"I don't wanna wait that long."

The twins continued to complain among themselves, and Leah tuned out the rest of the conversation. She chewed her food thoughtfully while keeping an eye on the big table.

Everyone waited until Grandma Annette hung up her apron and took her seat before they dug in. She couldn't hear the conversations, but there was a lot of smiling and laughter. Yesterday's uncomfortable silence appeared to be forgotten. Of course, everything had seemed fine until Grandma Joan was mentioned.

She replayed Grandpa's responses to her questions at the park. He appeared uneasy with the topic of her mom's biological mother, but why? A small part of her wanted to bring her up again to gauge everyone's reactions, but if her theory was correct, she didn't want to cause problems for her mom.

Breakfast flew by, and soon everyone began clearing the table. Uncle Matt ushered the twins and Jasmine to the living room while Auntie Carrie and her mom loaded the dishwasher. They were chatting and giggling, much like she and Cadence did. It was strange seeing them working side by side. If not for the 8-year age difference, they could almost pass for twins. They looked more alike than the actual twins, whom were fraternal, and therefore no similar than any other siblings. Leah found it interesting that the half sisters resembled each other more than full brothers. There were subtle differences, of course. Her mom's face was oval, like Grandma Joan's, while her aunt's was round, like Grandma Annette's. They had different noses but the same dark hair, and all three siblings had their dad's green eyes.

Leah felt a little sad that she would never have a sibling but understood her parents' reasons for opting against more children. The closest thing she had to siblings were her cousins. They only had one more full day in Boston, and here she was ignoring them.

She handed her mom the dishes from the kiddie table and was about to join her cousins in the living room, when she noticed her dad following her grandpa to the attached garage. What were they doing there? Her mom raised her eyebrows at their retreating backs. Carrie whispered something to her that caused her eyes to widen, then they resumed loading the dishes.

That was weird. As curious as she was, Leah decided ask her mom about it later when she got her alone. With one last look over her shoulder at the sisters, she went in search of the others.

Her uncles were trying, and barely succeeding, to keep the kids from peeking in their stockings.

"We need to wait for everyone. They all want to see what you got," Luke informed them.

Logan tugged Leah's hand, pulling her toward the fireplace. "Leah, I felt your stocking. I think there's a book in there."

Matt apologized to Leah for his son's behavior, and Leah waved him off. "It's okay. At least I don't know what book."

Soon the rest of the family settled on the floor and chairs surrounding the tree - everyone except Sheldon and Lowell. Now Leah's curiosity was really piqued. The walls and shelves were covered in decorations, and the tree was surrounded by presents for the whole family. Everything looked ready to go. What could they possibly need in the garage?

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jasmine tear a hole in a present labeled 'Leah'. She was about to distract her when a knock sounded at the front door. Ten heads swivled toward the sound.

"I wonder who that might be?" Annette asked. Leah noted the slight wink she gave Carrie as she passed by to get to the door.

"Ho ho ho!" A familiar voice boomed.

Leah's jaw dropped as a tall, lean, beardless Santa followed her grandpa into the living room and sat on the empty couch. How on earth did her dad agree to wear that costume? He wasn't a fan of Christmas and even less of a fan of the mythical man in the red suit. She frowned and met her mom's eyes to gauge her reaction. Instead of shock, she sent her a silent plea not to spoil it for her cousins. Leah acknowledged it with a slight nod of her head.

"Santa!" The kids shouted excitedly, and Leah belatedly joined them to go along with the charade.

The boys stood and lined up next to the couch. Luke tried to get his daughter to do the same, but she shook her head and explained that she already saw the real Santa last week.

"This is the real Santa," he insisted.

"No, it's not. Santa has a beard."

Hayden scrutinized the man in the red suit. "She's right. This can't be Santa. Everyone knows Santa has a beard."

Leah watched her dad pull on his collar and stepped in. "Maybe he got sweaty from delivering all the presents last night and shaved to keep cool."

"That is correct. I shaved this morning."

The boys accepted the answer, but Jasmine didn't appear convinced. Hoping she would follow her lead, Leah stepped up to the couch, but the younger girl wouldn't budge.

Hayden wasted no time climbing on Santa's lap and immediately began asking questions about the reindeer. "Is it true Dasher likes apples, and Dancer likes carrots?"

"Umm..."

"I think you mean Dasher likes apples more than Dancer, right Santa?" Logan corrected.

"Umm.."

"Actually, reindeer mostly eat moss, ferns, and fungi," Leah informed them. "I read about it in an arctic animals guide."

Hayden frowned. "Then why do we give them carrots with Santa's milk and cookies?"

"Everyone is right," Luke interjected. "They mostly eat the foods they find in the arctic, so that's why we give them carrots. It's a nice treat for them."

"Like a reward for carrying Santa and all the presents?" Logan asked.

Luke nodded. "Exactly."

Sheldon mouthed a silent thank you to his brother-in-law then attempted to get in character. Leah could see him struggling to say the right thing. He was clearly uncomfortable in the role, and the relief on his face was evident when he informed the kids he had to get back to the North Pole.

Five minutes later when he rejoined the group wearing his usual attire, the kids never even questioned his mysterious absence during Santa's visit. He even resumed his seat on the couch. Leah watched her mom as she joined him. She whispered something and kissed his cheek.

"Now can we look in our stockings?" Logan begged.

Grandma Annette nodded eagerly, and the boys raced to the fireplace.

xxx

Amy tucked the comforter around her daughter and kissed her forehead. "It's been a long day. Daddy and I are heading to bed too. Goodnight, Monkey."

Sheldon leaned over and did the same. They headed for the door then stopped when she asked them to wait.

"Is something wrong?" Amy asked.

She shook her head no. "I just wanted to talk. We haven't had time alone today."

"Just for five minutes, then it's time to sleep," Sheldon negotiated.

"Okay."

"And we need to keep our voices down so we don't wake everyone," Amy suggested.

"Okay." Leah whispered.

"What would you like to discuss, Monkey?"

Leah scooted over then patted the empty spot on the bed. "Daddy, why did you play Santa? You hate the idea of Santa."

Sheldon accepted the seat on the edge of the bed. "Your grandpa asked, and it was hard to refuse. I tried suggesting Uncle Luke or Uncle Matt for the role, but he pointed out that your cousins were more likely to recognize their dads."

"You could have said no."

Sheldon licked his lips. "We're part of this family, and I really wanted to prove that."

Leah wrinkled her nose. "Huh?"

He directed his next words at Leah but held his wife's gaze. "Mommy and I haven't known this side of her family very long, and it's difficult to get to know them better when we live on opposite coasts. I wanted to do this small favor for Grandpa to get more involved in their lives."

Amy smiled and squeezed his shoulder. "Thank you." He smiled back.

"Was not wearing the beard your way of rebelling?" Leah inquired.

"Actually, Grandpa lost it. We searched the bins in the garage, but it was nowhere to be found."

"Why does he even have a Santa suit?"

"He played Santa at the mall last year."

"Oh! He never told me," Amy admitted.

"He wanted to make a little extra money to fly out and see us over New Years, but they also hired two more Santas, and he didn't get enough hours to amount to much."

Amy swallowed hard. "I didn't even know."

"It was supposed to be a surprise. The only reason he told me was because I asked why he had the suit."

"Did he take the job again this year?" Amy asked hopefully.

"They asked him, but he declined." At her crestfallen face he added, "he told me the hours and pay were terrible. I suggested he visit us during during the off season when flights are cheaper."

"I really hope he comes," Amy said wistfully. "It's been a couple years since he visited. I want them all to come, but maybe not all at once. I want to spend more one-on-one time with them. I feel like I haven't had much of a chance to do that with such a full house."

"Uncle Luke hasn't visited since Jasmine was born," Leah chimed in. "I barely remember that."

"You're right; he hasn't," Amy mused.

Sheldon consulted his watch. "Five minutes are up, young lady. We can talk more about this tomorrow." He stood, tucked the comforter under his daughter's chin, and kissed her forehead again. "Goodnight. We'll see you in the morning."

"Night, Monkey."

"Night." Leah waited for the click of her parents' door then sat up and pressed her ear to the wall. Their low murmurs were too quiet to distinguish the words, so after a few minutes she gave up and lay back against her pillow.

She grew excited at the thought of her family visiting then frowned as she remembered her dad's odd choice of words when he explained why he agreed to wear the Santa suit. Why would he have to prove they were family? Did this have something to do with the tension from the previous day? Did grandpa's side of the family not fully accept them? Is that why they rarely visited?

She struggled to stay awake as her mind went over the events of the day. Everything was perfect, even their excursion to the church. Maybe a little too perfect. Her dad complained when Meemaw Mary forced them to church, but he went along today without even rolling his eyes. She tried to remember this part of their visit to Boston three years earlier but couldn't remember how he had acted at the prospect of attending mass.

She gave up trying to recall that visit and focused on their current visit. Her dad had been on his best behavior. Not only had he worn the Santa suit, but he didn't correct Uncle Luke when he said who instead of whom. His eye twitched, but he said nothing. It was like he was trying to keep the peace.

Leah pressed her ear to the wall again. The murmurs were replaced with complete silence. She decided to give in to her tired body and get some sleep too. Maybe she would find more answers tomorrow. She fluffed her pillow and closed her eyes, and within moments she drifted off into dreamland.