My Honda didn't get great gas mileage and smelled like cabbage on a rainy day, but it had a few redeeming features. Namely, it had great climate control, a great sound system and had come out of several fender benders in fairly good condition. That meant that by the time we got to my parents' house in Lowell, we were still in one piece and warm and had been listening to good music the whole way there. In effect, we were in great shape.
Of course, Matt had to disagree. I wasn't sure exactly how my sister had fallen for someone who had to have an opposing opinion about everything, but Matt had never quite grown out of that phase.He was waiting outside the door with a disapproving expression by the time I turned off the ignition.
"I can't believe you're still driving this bucket of bolts," he sniffed. "Don't you have any self-respect?"
Self-respect had nothing to do with living on a schoolteacher's salary. He just worked as a car salesman and was convinced that I should make peace with a nice little Dodge Stratus.
"I have plenty of self-respect," I responded. "I just happen to like this bucket of bolts and it's got another 70,000 miles of good driving in it."
"Ah, Beks," he sighed, pulling me into a bear hug. "I love having an optimist in the family."
He knew perfectly well that I was right. He also knew that I hated being called Beks, but this was Matt. Somewhere in the pre-nuptial agreement, he had made it his right to be an idiot when he wanted to be.
I squirmed free after an appropriate amount of time. "Noemi thought it was a smooth ride," I pointed out. "She slept the whole time."
Actually, she'd made a hilarious attempt at waving her arms in time to "Hips Don't Lie" and squalled when I put on ABBA. I'd stubbornly made her listen to "Dancing Queen" and "Winner Takes it All" before she finally conceded that it wasn't half-bad and stopped sulking.
"Good," he said. "Maybe she'll be in a good mood when her aunts want to cuddle her to death."
"One can hope," I agreed.
I turned her carrier so he could get a good look at her. He bent down and squinted at her for a long moment before straightening up with a satisfied "huh."
"Not bad, Beks," he commended. "She doesn't look like you at all."
Irked, I elbowed him in the ribs. "Quiet or I'll make you demonstrate your diaper-changing skills."
He just flashed a wicked grin and grabbed our bags before heading up the walk to the front door.
"Beks is here!" he shouted as if no one in the house were capable of noticing a car out front.
Mom was the first one to swoop in. She hugged me, kissed my forehead and immediately confiscated her granddaughter.
Lucy was next and less enthusiastic. "Glad you made it," she commented. "Can I have her next?"
"Sure," I sighed. "I have to warn you that she might not be too entertaining until she's finished her nap."
"That's fine," she said brightly. "Mary Anne's not here yet."
I wasn't looking forward to what being passed around would do to Noemi. She had tolerated James and Lily fairly well, but this was the first large-group setting that she had been subjected to.
"Did you hit that traffic on I-93?"
Leave it to Dad to skip the greetings and start comparing travel stories. I hugged him first and answered later.
"We ran into some of it," I conceded, "but it wasn't too bad by the time we got on the road."
didn't come take that shortcut through..."
Saved by the sister. Jessica let go after a few moments, but by that time, Dad had wandered into the kitchen in search of eggnog.
"Come on," she invited. "Matt's got your stuff in your old room and we can talk while you change."
I had finally unearthed an old dress from Lord and Taylor that still fit pretty well. It was a red knee-length dress that hid a lot of flaws and was suitably dressy for our annual Christmas Eve party.
Jess sat on the bed and kept up a running conversation until I was finished dressing. It was a relief to be around someone who expected me to do the least amount of talking.
"…And Mary Anne's bringing Scott," she concluded as I finished with the buttons. "Lucy's not happy that she's the only one not bringing a date, but that's her own fault for getting rid of Elsa a month ago."
"I didn't bring anyone," I countered.
"You brought a baby," she laughed. "You and she will be entertained or entertaining all night."
That was exactly what I was afraid of. If Noemi drew any attention to herself, it might not be of the sort everyone was expecting.
"I'm not sure I'll keep her down there for long," I said evasively. "She's not comfortable in crowds yet."
Jess nodded sympathetically. "Josh was the same way," she confided.
I highly doubted that.
"How's she doing?"
"She's healthy and sleeping better," I stated as I pulled on nylons. "She hasn't discovered colic yet."
"Well, you look great," Jess assured me.
"It's easier to take off baby weight when you're the only one in charge," I explained.
Jess grimaced sympathetically. "About that," she said. "We're not that far away. If you want, we could come over once a week and just sort of help out."
The thought of Jess, Matt and their four kids invading my house was not something particularly comforting. Still, I had to be polite.
"Thanks," I said with a smile. "I'll let you know."
With that, we headed back downstairs. Mom had unstrapped Noemi and was in the process of trying to get her to wake up. This mostly involved baby talking at her and wasn't terribly effective.
"She doesn't respond to that, Mom," I informed her.
"Of course she does," Mom argued. "She's my widdle cutie and she wants to see her gwandma, doesn't she?"
"It's my turn," Lucy announced before this nonsense could go any further.
Mom reluctantly gave her up with a final babbled syllable and headed to the kitchen to bother Dad about his cholesterol. This was certainly turning into the standard McMillan family Christmas.
"Noemi," Lucy said calmly, "I would be honored if you would deign to join us."
I laughed at that. "She's my daughter, not a head of state," I teased. "There's got to be a happy medium…"
"Hey, it worked!"
Noemi had pried one eye open to squint in annoyance at whoever had interrupted her nap. Then she closed it again, but her breathing did not steady again.
"Oh, god," Lucy chuckled. "That looked just like you."
It was true that I tended to do that in a similar situation, but I was immensely relieved that she hadn't chosen that moment to stare at her aunt with both eyes open.
"I need to get her changed for tonight," I said. "Want to help?"
"Sure," Lucy said. "Do you want…"
"You can take her upstairs," I offered. "If you're going to be her godmother, she might as well get used to you."
Lucy's jaw dropped open at that, but it only took a few more moments for her to regain her senses.
"All right," she said calmly. "We can talk about that upstairs."
We settled Noemi on the bed between us as I rummaged through her bag for her holiday dress.
"Sorry I haven't visited," Lucy said genuinely. "You know how Dad gets about us traveling these days."
"I do," I confirmed. "I'm surprised he didn't drive out and get us himself."
She grinned. "He almost did," she informed me, "but Mom said that the Seekers might even be at office holiday parties."
I finally found the green velvet dress that Josue had picked out two weeks before he died. I unsnapped Noemi and began peeling the onesie off. She didn't stir and I started to suspect that we'd bored her to sleep again.
"She's so sweet," Lucy sighed. "Is she always like this?"
"Only when she's trying to make a good impression," I said honestly. "When she wants to, she can be quite stubborn."
"Just like the two of us," she observed. "Are you sure you don't want someone more…tame as her godmother?"
"No," I said firmly. "I want you because you can help her understand what it's like to be different."
Lucy frowned. "Different," she echoed. "She hasn't expressed any same-sex preferences already, has she?"
"No." I leaned over and stroked Noemi's cheek. "It's all right. We can trust her."
Noemi opened her eyes immediately. Lucy sat frozen in place with her eyes wide for a long moment. Finally, she opened her mouth and after a few false starts, said something.
At least she didn't lash out or overreact. This was a good start.
"When did it
happen?" she asked quietly.
"I don't know exactly," I confessed. "I found out on the first night that I brought her home from the hospital."
"Oh." She closed her eyes for a moment and I could see her eyes going damp. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Maybe because I still haven't figured out the right words to explain this?
"It's not the sort of thing you mention between Red Sox scores and family gossip."
She glanced towards the door as if she expected an angry horde to burst through at any moment. "Do any of them know?"
"No," I said quickly. "I was going to tell them before the party."
She nodded. "Better to make sure that they don't find out the hard way."
There wasn't any way of telling my family that couldn't be described as the hard way, but I knew what she meant. It would be much better to deal with their shock or disapproval now than to have someone notice during the festivities.
"Well," she considered, "Mary Anne should be here in a few minutes. Do you want to tell them then?"
"As good a time as any," I agreed.
By the time we got Noemi changed, Mary Anne and her fiancé Scott had arrived. Mom tried to take Noemi again, but I stepped back.
"Can we talk for a minute?" I requested.
"Sure," she said. "We should have privacy if we go to the office…"
"I meant all of us," I corrected.
Mom sighed at the fact that she would have to wait even longer to monopolize my attention. "Go to the living room," she instructed. "I'll get the others."
Lucy and I took the love seat with the others scattered on various chairs and couches around the room. Someone had forgotten to include the kids, but it might be better to do this on a smaller scale first.
"What's going on?" Dad asked immediately.
"I need to tell you something."
I was so nervous that I was stating the obvious. I took a deep breath to calm myself.
"The night that I brought Noemi home from the hospital, I noticed something," I began.
Their faces all went slightly slack and I knew they were thinking of everything from birth defects to some kind of handicap.
"She's a healthy, intelligent baby," I rushed on. "More so than usual."
"Well, that's good," Mom interrupted.
"Mom," I said, "please."
She must have heard something in my tone because she took Dad's hand and looked as if she were bracing herself for the worst. The last time I had seen her this way was when Scott asked for permission to marry Mary Anne.
"I don't know when it happened, but Noemi became a host," I finally blurted.
There was absolute silence for a long moment. Finally, it was Matt who said something. "Like Anne."
"Somewhat," I confirmed.
"And you're keeping it?" Dad challenged.
Mom pulled away from him. "Are you sure?" she asked quietly.
I nodded, unable to work words past the tightness in my throat.
"That thing is a threat to us," Dad snapped. "I can't believe you brought it into our house."
"She can't even take care of herself yet," Mom shot back. "How do you think she's a threat to us?"
I was relieved to hear that Mom was taking our side on this, but no one else had weighed in. I turned a pleading look on Lucy and she grimaced.
"You wanted to adopt a Vietnamese child after the war," she pointed out. "How's that any different?"
It was an argument that I had not yet thought of. Dad had spent a year in Viet Nam and still knew the difference between the Viet Cong and the innocents. If he could see something similar in this situation, it might be a good thing.
"A Vietnamese baby wouldn't have grown up wanting to betray us," Dad protested.
"You don't know that Noemi will," Lucy insisted. "Anne hasn't turned us over to her kind."
"Leave her out of this," he ordered.
"No," I interjected. "We can't leave her out of this. Noemi isn't anything like Rides the Winds. By the time she'll be able to speak and act for herself, she'll have been around us for years. It would be difficult for that to not make a difference."
"I don't think it's safe for it to spend years getting used to us," Dad said. "She could join our side eventually or she could decide to make us just like her when she's old enough to inform on us."
"We can't decide now what she will do then," I argued.
"Why not?" he retorted. "They decided to take over because they saw that some of us were monsters."
"And you think condemning my daughter for that is any different?" I shot back. "If you're looking for a high ground, you're not doing very well."
The room fell silent again. Three of the family members had stated their positions. The others were trying to decide what side to take. Instinctively, I held Noemi a little more tightly.
"She's my niece," Jessica said finally. "No matter what is control of her, she's family. Personally, I'm in favor of taking a chance on her."
"Me, too," Mary Anne agreed firmly.
"And what if she becomes a threat?" Dad reiterated, staring at me.
"In that case, I will put as much distance as necessary between us and you," I said flatly. "I'm not interested in putting anyone at risk. That includes her and it includes you."
It was a difficult thing to ask of either of us, but it was the only answer that would satisfy him.
"This can work out," I said quietly by way of conclusion, looking at Matt and Scott for input.
Finally, Matt's stony expression melted. "Ah, Beks," he echoed his earlier statement. "I love having an optimist in the family."
I hesitantly returned his grin. "Are you in?"
"Of course," he promised.
"I trust Mary Anne's judgment," Scott added. "I'm in."
I bit my lip and nodded with as much dignity as I could muster. Not all of them were convinced yet and I wasn't celebrating this victory until he changed his mind.
The vote only left Dad in dissent and he was looking slightly rattled that no one but him had any sense. Acting on an instinct, I stood and crossed to the couch where he and Mom were sitting. He didn't resist when I handed Noemi to him, which was the first good sign.
"She has your chin," I said quietly. "She has my mouth and Mom's hands. We can teach her everything else she needs to know."
He shook his head, but it wasn't in disagreement. Instead, I finally saw a hint of a smile on his face.
"I can't believe you're asking this of us," he said with only a hint of the earlier edge in his voice.
"I didn't exactly have a choice," I reminded him. "The only one we have is whether or not to accept her for who and what she is."
"And you think you've made the right choice?" he asked.
"I know I have," I insisted. "What about you?"
He sighed and shifted his granddaughter into a more comfortable position. "All right," he conceded. "I'll side with the rest of you."
Relieved beyond words, I kissed his forehead and hugged him awkwardly. A ripple of laughter went through the room.
"What did I tell you?" Mary Anne asked Scott. "Bekah could always convince Dad of anything she wanted."
"That's because she has more sense than I do at times," Dad called out. "Who wants eggnog?"
That broke the tension in the room and Mom stood to fetch mugs. I slid into her vacated spot and wrapped an arm around Dad's shoulders.
He nodded and handed Noemi back so he could stand up. "I hope you're right about her."
I tried to keep a grin on my face, but shrugged. "We'll see."
That was all we had to know for now.