Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Three)

"… And Sandy Osborne's been divorced now for the third time," Catherine was saying as she watched Quinn roll out sugar cookie dough on the marble countertop she'd had installed for just that very purpose. "She finally threw in the towel on marriage, I guess, 'cause she moved back into her folks' home in town."

"Poor Sandy," Quinn mused. "She never really did know what she wanted, did she?"

"Only on a temporary basis, it would seem," Catherine muttered. "There now, Quinn, flatten out that corner there, so all the dough's the same thickness."

Quinn did as she was told, secretly smiling. In her search for perfection in all things, Catherine would continue to instruct until her kids got it right.

"Stars?" Quinn asked, holding up the old tin cookie cutter, and her mother nodded absently. Quinn proceeded to press the cookie cutter into the dough, and Catherine lifted the little stars and placed them on the waiting baking sheets.

"I cannot wait until Susannah gets here with that darling little Lilly of hers," Catherine sighed, then grumbled. 'To think I'd end up with only one grandchild, after all these years."

"Mom, you haven't 'ended up,'" Quinn reminded her. "None of us are even married yet."

"Don't think I don't realize that." Catherine held up her hand. "Goodness, six children and no sons- or daughters-in-law."

"Sunny was married for a while."

"Please, him I'd rather forget." Catherine shook her head. "I just don't understand why none of you has found someone to fall madly in love with so I could go to my grave knowing at least one of my children would live happily ever after."

"Mom, your grave isn't ready for you, and we all will live happily ever after. Eventually."

"Well, I wish you'd get on with it" Catherine opened the oven and slid the sheet of white-dough stars inside. "A house should be filled with children on Christmas."

"The house will be filled with kids, Mom, since well all be home," Quinn reminded her, "and we're all just little kids at heart."

Catherine raised her eyes above the oven door and glared at her middle child. "You've all long passed that cute, cuddly stage where you believed in Santa and couldn't wait to get up on Christmas morning to see what toys he brought you. I miss that excitement, Quinn. It's been all too many years since little hands have tapped my cheek to wake me at dawn." She brightened, adding, "At least I have Lilly to spoil, though every year I look at you and your brothers and your sisters and wonder if I've raised a bunch of crabby old maids and grumpy old bachelors."

Quinn laughed and kissed her mother's cheek. "You worry too much, Mom. We're just all taking our time to find the right person, that's all. Now, how long will those cookies take?" She peered at the recipe book. 'Twelve minutes. Just enough time to go up to the attic and bring down a few boxes of Christmas decorations."

"Well, it might be a good idea to do that now. Your dad is afraid that the storm they've been predicting for tomorrow might hit early, so he wanted to go out after lunch to cut down the tree."

"CeCe will be disappointed if we go without her."

"She'll be more disappointed if we end up with no tree at all because we waited too long to go."

"True." Quinn turned on the light to the attic and opened the door, setting loose a cold whoosh of frigid, musty air. She climbed the steps and set about the task of selecting the boxes that would be stacked and carried to the first floor to trim the family tree. One of the advantages of being the first one home, she mused, is that you got to choose what decorations would go on the tree. She peeked through this box and that, piling up the ones that held her personal favorites. After several trips up and down the steps, she had several piles of boxes assembled in the great room. She began to lift lids, and to reminisce.

The timer from the kitchen signaled that this present batch of Christmas cookies had finished baking. She heard the oven door open, then close, smelled the pure vanilla aroma. Her mother would finish up the batches of sugar cookies, then start on the oatmeal raisin cookies, the orange drops, the shortbread. Everyone's favorites would be made, from her father's chocolate chip to those of Lilly, the youngest member of the family, who had a preference for the butterscotch brownies she had sampled the last time she had visited. Sky would want gingersnaps, Liza would want lemon squares, Susannah chocolate thumbprints, and Trevor and CeCe, the twins and oldest of the Hollister brood, would be scouring the cookie tins until they found the big, soft molasses cookies they both loved. Her mother would continue baking for days, and from now until Christmas, the old ranch house would smell like a fine bakeshop.

"Hey, Sis," Schuyler called from the doorway, "if you're planning on going with us to find the tree, you'd better start to get ready now."

"Can't you wait another hour or so, Sky? Mom and I were going to make the dough for the gingerbread houses next."

"Dad and I are thinking we should go before lunch." Schuyler pointed out the window and frowned. "It's getting white back toward the mountains. Dad thinks the storm might come early, and he'd just as soon take care of the tree now."

"I think I'll pass, then. Mom wanted to have a little village of gingerbread houses all baked so that when Sunny gets home, Lilly can have fun decorating them." Quinn lifted the lid off a box. "Look here, Sky. All the old colored-glass Christmas balls."

"You mean all the ones that didn't get broken the year the cat jumped onto the Christmas tree," her brother called from the kitchen, where he would be snitching a few golden sugar cookies off the cooling racks. "Good idea Liza had, to tie a ribbon around the cat's neck and take her for a walk."

The young orange tabby had taken off across the room, jumped onto the back of the sofa, from which it had been a mere hop onto the back of the Christmas tree, which had smashed forward onto the hardwood floor with all the might of a falling timber. Liza had been six or seven at the time, and had never lived it down. Knowing how upset Catherine had been to have lost so many of her mother's fragile glass balls, the children had spent the next several days making things to hang on the tree to take the place of those that had shattered. Paper chains and popcorn balls, diamond shapes made of aluminum foil and toothpicks, clothespin dolls and stars made of drinking straws, all had been hung on the tree to surprise their mother. Quinn would never forget the look on her mother's face when they led her into the great room and turned the lights on the tree. Liza had been vindicated, and the integrity of the family tree as a sort of family journal had remained intact.

From the pink tissue lining of the box that lay open on her lap, Quinn uncovered a stack of white paper hearts. She lifted it and let the paper chain unfold, remembering the year she had been ten and a bad case of chicken pox had kept her confined to her bed. Catherine had done double duty that year, supervising the tree decorating downstairs and trying to keep Quinn entertained in her sickroom at the same time. To make Quinn feel a part of the family effort, Catherine had brought her stacks of paper and a pair of scissors. With careful folding and a few quick snips, Catherine had shown her how to transform the paper into a chain of hearts. Quinn had spent all of Christmas Eve making chain after chain, and Catherine had patiently taped them together into one long chain before hanging them on the tree. Over the years this one or that section of Quinn's heart-chain had been ripped or torn or mistakenly tossed out, but here, in the corner of the box, cushioned by pink tissue, the last of the paper chain rested.

I could probably still do this in my sleep, Quinn thought, as she folded the chain back into itself again, I made so many of them that night. Holding the hearts in her hand brought that night back to her so vividly, and for the briefest second, Quinn felt that if she closed her eyes, she could still hear her mother's gentle voice, feel the cooling touch of those soothing fingers, taste the cold tartness of the orange juice Catherine had brought her.

The timer buzzed rudely from the kitchen and Catherine turned it off. It was time to start another batch of cookies if they were to be done by the end of the week. Quinn loved having this little bit of the morning to spend alone with her mother, just as she loved sorting through the old boxes that contained the fragments of Christmases past, as she loved the little pieces of herself and her family that she found within them.

Wasn't that what coming home for Christmas was all about, the memories, the love?

"Quinn." Sky tapped her on the shoulder. "What?" She looked up at him.

"I said, Mom's calling you.v

"Oh, I guess she's ready to make the gingerbread."

"You're sure you don't want to join us, Quinn?" Her father asked.

"I'm sure, Dad." She smiled back at the big man who filled the doorway. He was still tall and broad- shouldered, though not quite so tall as Sky, nor as muscular as Trevor, both of whom had played high school football before going on to play at the University of Montana at Missoula. Though well into his sixties, their father still had all of his hair, much of which was still chestnut brown, like that of both his sons. His eyes still twinkled and his laughter still filled this house and his face still softened when he looked at his beloved Catherine.

It had only been recently that Hap had started taking the first steps toward retiring, talking about turning the ranch over to his sons, to give him more time to spend with his wife. They spoke of taking a cruise come February, maybe even fly to Florida, then book a ship to the islands over there on the opposite side of the country. Their children not only encouraged them but had, as a Christmas surprise, chipped in for that very trip for their parents. Trevor had driven into town just that morning to see if the tickets had been delivered to the post office box.

Quinn had set the box of ornaments on the floor and stood up, preparing to drop the chain of hearts into a basket on the table next to her, when she realized the basket was filled with Christmas cards.

"I can never get over how many people find the time to mail Christmas cards each year," she said to her father.

"It's not something you find time to do," her mother corrected her from the nearby kitchen, "it's something you make time to do. And we received some lovely cards this year."

Quinn lifted the stack of cards and sorted through them, reading the names of the senders. Mostly relatives and old friends of the family, she noted.

"Who is 'Valerie ?" she asked, holding up the environmentally correct card depicting the endangered timber wolf on the front.

"Valerie McKenzie." Hap grinned. "She was here over Thanksgiving. Spent most of the fall up at old Jed's cabin, cleaning it up. Had a bunch of workmen up there every day. Had all sorts of new stuff delivered. New refrigerator, some new furniture. First time in years there's been a McKenzie back up here. You probably heard that she made it real big as a model in New York. Yep"–he nodded–"she's grown into one beautiful young woman, wouldn't you say, son?"

Sky shrugged noncommitally.

"Oh, right, I'll just bet you didn't notice her." Quinn laughed. "Just like you didn't notice how well she filled out those little bathing suits when she was sixteen and she and Liza used to go swimming down at Golden Lake."

Quinn ducked the rolled-up piece of paper that Sky threw in the direction of her head.

"Well, she's a lovely girl, and we're looking forward to seeing her over the Christmas holidays," Catherine told them. "She and Liza are planning on getting together. They were the best of friends for so long, you'll remember."

"Val is going to be staying at the cabin over Christmas?" Quinn asked.

"She said she would be. Said she enjoyed being home so much that she was sorry she'd stayed away so long," Hap told her.

"Did she now?" Quinn grinned meaningfully at Sky, who was just about to tell her that Valerie wasn't the only McKenzie who'd be around over the next few weeks.

Quinn was still smirking at her brother as she dropped Val's card into the basket.

On second thought, Sky thought, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, maybe we'll just let Little Miss Smart Mouth make that discovery on her own.

He just hoped that he wasn't around when she did.

"Daddy, we want cartoons." Evan McKenzie leaned over his father's shoulder and directly into his face to make his announcement.

"Yeah." Eric nodded. "We're bored."

"How can you be bored?" Cale glanced across the room to the clock on the mantle. It was barely ten o'clock in the morning. This had, he grimaced, all the makings of a very long day.

"We want television," the twins chorused.

"Guys, guys, for the last time, there is no television here. You're in the wilds of Montana, just like the hearty pioneers. Look"–Cale stood up and pulled back the homespun curtain on the living room window and pointed outside–"you stand right here and watch, and I'll bet that before too long a deer or an elk will go right by."

"We saw elk yesterday," Evan reminded him.

"I'd rather see the Grinch," Eric grumbled.

"Or Sesame Street. I miss Bert and Ernie, don't you?" Evan tumbled on top of his brother and brought him down with a thud.

"Elmo. And Oscar." Eric sat on his brother's chest. "And Beavis…"

"And Butthead."

"How do you guys know about Beavis and Butthead?" Cale asked over his shoulder.

"Cathy let us watch it with her when you were in habili… that place. After you got hurt," Evan told his father.

"You mean rehabilitation." Cale frowned and made a mental note to speak with Mrs. Mason, the nanny, about what her eleven-year-old daughter was watching on television these days.

"Yeah. That." Eric nodded as he struggled to slip out of his shirt and escape from his brother, rolling over the back of the sofa their Aunt Valerie had had delivered a month before.

Evan dove for his twin, who, being a master of evasive action, turned in time to send Evan crashing into the table and pitching the lamp onto the floor.

Cale considered his roughhousing offspring, and figured it would take them another twenty minutes more to pretty much destroy all the work it had taken his sister several months to accomplish. There would be hell to pay when Val arrived. Oh, he could explain a broken lamp–make that two broken lamps, he thought as he flinched at the sound coming from their bedroom–but as proud as she had been of the fact that she had transformed the old cabin into a cozy retreat, she was not likely to have more than two lamps' worth of forgiveness to spare.

A crash from the small dining area raised the ante to two lamps and one vase.

"Boys, get your gear, we're taking a walk." He caught the little hellions as they tried to flee back down the hallway that led to two small bedrooms.

"We took a walk yesterday," Evan protested loudly.

"Well, we're taking another one today." Cale dumped the squirming bodies onto the sofa. "Get your boots and your jackets and your gloves. Let's move it."

"We don't want to go for a walk. We want to watch cartoons." Eric folded his arms across his chest and did his best to scowl.

"Yeah." Evan mimicked his twin brother's stance and his facial expression.

"Tough. We're walking. Get ready." Cale, not to be out-scowled, pointed firmly to the pile of boots inside the back door.

Still grumbling, the boys reluctantly did as they were told. "Maybe we'll see a bald eagle," Cale said to encourage them.

"I'd rather see a bear," Eric sulked.

"Yeah. Or a wolf." His brother moped along behind him.

"Trust me, fellas," their father told them as he held the back door open, "you don't want to see a bear or a wolf from the wrong side of the window."

"We're not scared," Eric said bravely.

"Well, you should be." Cale dosed the door behind them. "Here, Evan, you can carry the binoculars and Eric can help me shake the snow off the rope."

"Why do you need to tie rope to the house?" Erie asked as he followed his father's lead and pulled the length of rope loose from the snow that had drifted to cover it

"You tie the rope from the house to the shed where the wood is stacked," Cale explained, "so that if there's a really bad storm, you can go out and get firewood and not get lost in the snow."

"How could you get lost? The house is right there." Eric pointed.

"Sometimes the wind blows the snow around so much you can't see your hand in front of your face," Cale explained, "so you would hold on to the rope and use it to lead you back to the house. Come on, guys, let's go real quietly and we'll see what just landed in that big pine tree…"

Dolefully rolling their eyes at each other, the sullen little boys trudged reluctantly through the snow behind their father.