"Shh! Daddy will hear us. We're not supposed to be outside."
"Nobody else is awake, what else are we gonna do?"
"This is more fun, anyway. I have stuff we can do, come on."
I followed Mack up the ladder, carefully carrying Marie in one arm. It was early on Christmas morning, and we weren't allowed to wake Mom and Dad yet, or go and see what Santa brought for us. As the eldest, I tried to help out by encouraging the younger two to follow the rules. Technically, we weren't supposed to go outside before breakfast, but we had a fenced-in yard and we were going to stick with each other in the tree house.
Dad and I built it together, even though Mack tried to help. It was one room with two windows, and a set of shelves ran along the walls. We kept board games and toys up there to play with whenever we got the chance.
"I hope Santa brought me the new bike I asked for," Mack said as he made it inside and crawled over to sit down.
"I'm sure he did, Mackie," I assured him.
"But what if he didn't?"
I knew that not much was more important to a kid of his age than a shiny new bike. "Uncle Emmett promised to get you one if Santa didn't, but I'm sure it's sitting under the tree right now."
He sighed wistfully. "Yeah."
"Santa?" Marie said. Her large brown eyes looked up at me, and they were just like Mom's.
"Yeah, Mimi, he came and gave us presents. We'll open them soon."
"Soon?" she parroted.
"Soon," I repeated.
Mack pulled out Candy Land and started setting it up. It was his favorite, and it would pass the time until Mom and Dad got up. The sun was just barely rising, peeking through the windows of the tree house as we played the game.
"I got the rainbow trail!" Mack shouted. Marie clapped just because he was happy.
"Does that mean you won?" I heard Dad's voice from the doorway.
Marie squealed, but Mack gasped and began throwing game pieces over his shoulder like he could hide the fact we were in here if the game disappeared.
"Morning, Dad," I sighed. I'd hoped he could sleep in later.
He chuckled. "Good morning, Mallie." I moved over so he could come in, bent over to not hit his head on the doorframe. "Did they wake you up?" he asked as Marie rushed him and threw herself in his lap. He accepted and returned her sloppy kisses.
"Yes, but I don't mind." My brother and sister often woke me up early on the weekends because they were trying not to wake our parents.
"We'll let Mom sleep a little more. What're you playing?" he asked, taking in the flipped over game board.
"Candy Land," Mack answered.
"Until he thought he'd throw it over his shoulder to hide it," I interjected wryly.
Dad laughed. "It's okay. I understand you were trying not wake us. It's a good idea, Mal."
I blushed at his compliment. "Thanks, Dad. What time are Uncle Emmett and Aunt Bree coming?"
"After breakfast. Ethan and June want to open their Santa gifts first."
"Santa?" Marie piped up again.
"Ho ho ho," Dad said in a deep voice, making Marie giggle and pull on his cheeks.
"And Aunt Alice and Uncle Jasper and Katie?"
"Closer to lunch. Don't worry, they'll all be here," Dad assured me.
"Did my family move out of the house and into the trees?" I heard Mom's voice.
"Mama!" Marie was always happy.
"Are Gramma and Grampa awake yet?" Mack asked, bouncing eagerly toward the door.
"I think they might be stirring," she answered, lifting both my siblings down and setting them on their feet in the chilly grass. "It's too cold out here, let's warm up inside. Dad can light a fire and I'll get breakfast going."
"Santa?" Marie asked again.
"Yes, baby girl, let's see what Santa brought."
Mom carried her inside while the rest of us followed. I watched my baby sister's little round face light up when she saw the gifts under the tree, and she squealed and clapped in her excitement.
"I changed her diaper before we went outside, but I wouldn't be surprised if she just peed in it," I commented. Mom laughed at me and put her arm around my shoulders.
"You're such a good big sister. Thank you," she whispered, and I turned into her hug and embraced her.
"Let's get that fire going," Dad said, and he even let me help him lay out the logs and some newspaper. Behind us, Mack was ripping into his gifts and Marie was mostly staring at the Christmas lights and singing to herself. Gramma and Grampa came in the room and we all started passing out gifts while Mom put her breakfast casserole in the oven. I looked over at Dad, and warmth filled my chest. None of this would possible without him, and I got up and threw myself at him, clinging to his shirt in a fierce hug.
"I love you so much, Dad," I whispered into his neck. "Thank you for everything."
"I love you, too, sweet girl. Merry Christmas."