Of course everyone was more secretive because it was Christmas time, and everywhere the echo of muffled giggles and running feet hinted at mysterious doings afoot. Children disappeared into rooms and slammed doors as Marie hauled laundry or half-unpacked boxes up stairs and through corridors. Somehow nine children seemed like a lot more when they rambled around a huge old house than when they were all jammed in the small living room of the unlamented heap they used to call home. At least the kids had been easier to count then. Now it was impossible to tell who was who between all the mops of tangles disappearing with packages into empty rooms. Empty rooms! Such a novel concept before, but in this house, there were plenty of places for a child to hide away.
Up in the attic, Marie didn't dare search through the opened boxes for the Christmas decorations lest she disturb someone's cleverly hidden present cache. Still, there were plenty of sealed boxes up there to go through, stacked amid the detritus of previous homeowners: magazines, records, dress-up clothes, books, and even a photograph of the original family to live here. The stiff sepia-toned parents were slightly too blurry for Marie to feel that they looked on her in judgment, but the young girl stared clear-eyed at the mess, ringlets carefully arrayed over her dark dress.
"Never saw this much chaos in your life, huh, kid?" Marie muttered, and then felt bad at the thought of one child rattling around in this pile, between the great rooms downstairs and the small servants' bedrooms on the third floor. Well, the old place had life aplenty now. Three middle girls in three separate bedrooms, wrapping, though at a glance who could say which one was Rachel, Melanie, or Nell? A quick peek in the nursery revealed two little boys who were either Pete and Joe, or Joe and Pat, or Pat and Pete crouched over some legos. A teenager reading huddled under a blanket in the living room -- was it shaggy John or shingled Mary Alice? And then the kids had met the neighbors and were always vanishing next door and then popping in again with friends in tow, leaving Marie with the disconcerting feeling of there being at once too many and not enough children underfoot. At least the baby was always easy to track: small, attached to someone's hip, and definitely bald.
At last the tree was up, the house was decorated (thanks to the kids), and the presents were stacked, but Marie felt even less settled in the house than when they'd first moved. She never thought she'd miss having no personal space, but now the only time everyone was gathered in one place, all accounted for, was at dinner time. At least in the old house she'd had some kind of sense of where everyone was at any given moment. Now children could isolate themselves, someone always sneaking off alone to throw off her mental headcount. Even Dan confessed himself defeated, laughing on Saturday afternoon as he tried to tally his children in the confusion of rooms and neighbors.
"Be grateful," he told Marie as he kissed her in the kitchen. "This is a great neighborhood. I think I saw one of the neighbor kids behaving nicely in the library when our own were upstairs shrieking in the bedrooms."
Marie wondered how her house must sound to the other mothers on the street.
At least on Christmas Day, the noise and fighting were confined to the family. Presents had been opened and abandoned, dinner was made, the kids had set the table, and Marie even took a few moments upstairs to put on a fresh sweater and some lipstick before entering the fray. The dining room resounded as kids jockeyed for coveted positions. There had been fighting, for in the twilit living room Nell, or Melanie, or Rachel sat with her back to the world, contemplating the glowing tree and refusing to budge. "Grant us peace," Marie sighed as she opened the dining room doors. A burst of Christmas cheer greeted her, and everyone sorted into their spots. At the head of the table opposite her, Dan; four tousled heads down each side; and in the high chair, sweet bald baby, leaving Marie standing by the one empty chair, her own, stifling the summons she'd been about to give to the small ringleted presence still behind her in the living room.
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