As she staggered through the front door, Helen let out something that was half-groan, half-sigh of relief. Her four-year-old daughter, Daria, twitched briefly at the sound but stayed asleep in her mother's arms. Behind her, Jake stumbled as he tried to carry a suitcase with one arm without waking their younger daughter, Quinn, in his other.
"Ga--" he nearly shouted before catching himself. Each parent gently lay the girls down in their beds, then headed back into the late autumn night to retrieve the rest of their things from the car.
"I think this was the worst Thanksgiving yet," Helen grumbled as she pulled a few books and stuffed animals out of the backseat. "I swear, your mother goes out of her way to remind me how much better than me she thinks she is."
"Aw, Helen," Jake protested sleepily. "It wasn't that bad. She did compliment your casserole."
Through clenched teeth, Helen replied, "Right after she gloated--again--about how I'm staying home to take care of the girls." Grabbing a pair of sneakers from the floor of the car, she muttered, "For now."
Jake, knowing how sensitive Helen was about leaving her job when their daughters were born, decided to change the subject. "Still, it's better than last year when we visited your family." He chuckled softly as they came back into the house. "Remember when Rita made fun of Amy for still being single, and your mother said she'd settle down when she was ready, and you told Amy you hoped someday she'd find someone who was right for her, and she just smiled and said, 'You, too'?" He paused and frowned. "Hey, wait a minute...."
Hoping to distract her husband, Helen turned on the radio. "Let's listen to some music while we unpack," she suggested. She opened the suitcase and groaned. "Your mother snuck another cookbook into our things," she told Jake accusingly.
Jake frowned. "Honey," he replied defensively, "you know she means well."
"She means to be insulting!" Helen tossed the cookbook into a nearby wastebasket, a little harder than she'd intended to. The wastebasket toppled over, but neither of them moved to pick it back up.
"No," Jake argued, "insulting is all those snarky comments Amy and Rita always make about me every time we see them!"
"At least they say them to your face. Your mother makes passive aggressive remarks and does sneaky things like that!" Helen gestured angrily at the fallen wastebasket.
The two glared at each other quietly for a few moments before the radio filled the silence. "Feliz Navidad! Feliz Navidad! Feliz Navidad! Prospero año y felicidad!"
Jake and Helen turned to look at the radio in horror. "Christmas...." Helen whispered.
"Oh, God, no!" Jake whimpered at the same time. "Not again!"
Sinking down on the living room couch, Helen sighed. "It's ridiculous for us to argue over whose family is worse. The point is, they all drive us insane. We'll just have to grin and bear it again next month."
"Aww, do we have to?" Jake whined.
Helen rolled her eyes at his childish tone, but then frowned in thought. "Actually...do we?" she asked.
"Is this a trick question?" Jake replied warily.
"Not at all!" she exclaimed, starting to get excited. "Maybe this year we could stay home and have Christmas with just us and the girls." She stood up and began to pace the room. "No family bickering."
Jake's eyes glazed over and he began to smile. "No endless road trips."
"No veiled insults."
"No pretending Mad Dog was a great man instead of the twisted, soulless bastard we all know he was!"
"None of any of it. Just the four of us right here." Helen stopped. "Do you think we could get away with it?" Her eyes fell on the overturned wastebasket again. "You know what? I don't care. Let's do this!"
"Yeah!" Jake exclaimed. Then he tilted his head and looked wide-eyed as his wife. "Umm...how?"
Helen stared back at him. "I...I don't know."
The next day, after Jake got home from work, Helen waited until he'd finished ranting about his horrible boss and had a martini before presenting him with a carefully-typed list.
"I've been working on this all day," she explained. "These are all the things that we can do this year for Christmas now that we won't have to spend all our time packing and traveling and visiting family."
"Okay," Jake said, blinking at the meticulous list of items. "Did you call your mother and tell her we aren't coming this year?"
Helen lowered the paper and cringed. She wasn't looking forward to that conversation. "Would it be wrong if we just...didn't show up?"
"She'd be very angry," he said.
"She'll be angry when I tell her!" Helen groaned. "What if we claimed we can't afford to travel?"
"She'd tell Rita."
Helen sighed. The last thing she wanted was to give Rita yet another thing to gloat about. "Okay. Arrange it so that I call when she's not home, and that way I can just leave a message letting her know, and we just don't answer the phone again until after it's all over?"
"That's kind of impractical."
"Fake our deaths?"
"Fine," she said, giving up. "I'll call her tonight."
"Call who?" Daria said as she wandered into the room, book in hand.
"Grandma Barksdale," Helen told her. "Listen, Sweetie, how would you like to stay home for Christmas this year?"
"You're going without me?" Daria said, brow furrowed in confusion.
"No," Jake chuckled. "We're all going to stay home this year!"
"Grandma Barksdale's gonna be mad," Daria warned.
"Don't worry, Daria," Helen reassured her. "It's going to be fun!"
As her older daughter gave her a doubtful look, Quinn scampered in with her arms full of dolls. "Hi Daddy! I gave all my dolls new names today! This one is Amber and she's my favorite, and this one is Melissa and she's my second favorite, and this one is Jennifer and she's my third favorite, and this one is Nicole and she's my fourth favorite, and I don't like this one very much so I named her Daria."
Daria looked at her sister with mild disgust. "Can we send Quinn and the rest of us stay home?"
That night after the girls had gone to bed, Helen and Jake sat down in the kitchen to look at the Christmas checklist. Helen stared at the phone on the wall, dreading the call she was going to make later that night. Just a few more minutes to prepare what I want to say, she promised herself as Jake slowly read through the detailed list of tasks she'd come up with.
"Christmas cards?" he asked. "We do those every year anyway, don't we?"
Helen tore her eyes from the phone. "I thought this year we might do a special family photo for the Christmas cards."
"Oh." Jake continued reading. "'Baking'? What kind of baking?"
"Well, last year we just bought Christmas cookies for the girls at a bakery. It would be nice to try baking them this year, wouldn't it?"
"Hey, yeah!" Jake said excitedly. "That sounds like fun!"
"So I'll look for some festive cookie dough the next time I'm at the grocery store."
"Aw, Helen," complained Jake. "I wanted to try making them from scratch!"
Helen looked doubtful. "I don't know, Jakey. Are you sure you can handle--"
"Yes, dammit!" Jake exclaimed. "I think I can handle a few lousy cookies! What, do you think I can't do a little baking? Stupid, useless Jake can't take on the workload of ten people while that little dictator wannabe breathes down his neck, so of course Christmas cookies would put him in over his head!"
Helen saw that Jake's fists were clenched and his eyes were looking at something far, far away. She knew the signs; he'd had a rougher-than-usual day at his new job and his boss had been especially hard on him. "Certainly you can make the cookies from scratch," she replied soothingly. "That would be just--"
She was interrupted by the phone ringing. Patting Jake on the arm, she stood and answered it. "Morgendorffer resi--oh, helloooo, Mother! I was just going to call you in--yes, I was! I mean it! Yes, I'm sure Rita does call much more often than I do, but--" Helen cringed. "It's funny you should ask about Christmas. See, Jake and I...I'm sorry, Mother. You're right; it was rude of me to interrupt."
She rolled her eyes and listened as her mother continued. Jake decided to find the checklist absolutely engrossing. "Mm-hm," Helen said absently. "Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Yes, but--mm-hm." Finally there was enough of a pause in the monologue that Helen could interject. "It all sounds lovely, Mother, really, but that's what I need to tell you. This year..." Helen closed her eyes and forced out the words, "...Jake and I have decided to stay home for Christmas."
Jake reflexively shrank down into his seat, fearful of whatever wrath might burst forth from the phone. Instead, Helen's expression relaxed and a genuine smile formed on her face. "Really? I'm so glad you're all right with--" Her expression darkened again. "No, Mother, I'm not rejecting you or the rest of the family. We just want...I didn't say that at all! We'll see you again soon; just not at Christmas."
Helen began pacing, pulling the phone cord back and forth as she walked. "Now, Mother, I think I can handle the holiday on my own; you don't need to--" She whirled around abruptly, nearly strangling herself with the cord. "That was over twenty years ago! I was a teenager and that turkey was hardly burned. It was just a little crispy, that's all." She glared at thin air. "Mother," she said in as polite a tone as she could manage, "we are staying home for Christmas. That is settled. I understand that you're disappointed, but that's just how it's going to be this year."
After a pause to listen once more, Helen squeezed her eyes shut and said through gritted teeth, "I promise you, the girls' Christmas is not going to be ruined. It won't." She opened her eyes to see Jake making frantic motions with his hands, miming hanging up a phone. She nodded, resigned. "Everything will be fine. Give my best to Rita. Good-bye." With that, she hung up the phone only a little harder than she'd meant to.
"She...took that better than I expected," Jake offered nervously.
"I don't care what she thinks," Helen said flatly. "This year Christmas is going to be perfect."
Seeing the look in his wife's eyes, Jake shrank down in his seat once more.
The following weekend brought Phase One of Operation: Perfect Christmas. That blustery Saturday afternoon, Helen and Jake bundled up the girls and they set out for the mall. Quinn was thrilled. Daria was not.
"You promise we'll go to the bookstore?" she asked in the car for the fifth time.
"Yes, Sweetie," Helen assured her. "But remember, Santa's coming soon! No new books until Christmas, okay?"
Daria rolled her eyes and frowned. "Santa never brings any good books," she muttered.
"I wanna see the toy store! And the new Christmas dresses! And the candy store! And--"
"We'll see everything, Quinn," Jake called back from the driver's seat. "It's going to be a great day. A great start to a great Christmas season!" He leaned on the horn. "Stay in your own lane, you maniac!"
After the seventh trip around the mall parking lot, Helen convinced Jake to drop her and the girls off at the door before continuing his search for a good parking spot. "We'll meet you by the photo studio in fifteen minutes," she called over her shoulder as she got out of the car.
Helen led the girls into the mall, where she immediately had to grab Quinn's hand to keep her from running off. "Don't forget," she reminded her younger daughter, "we're here to shop for other people."
Quinn looked disappointed, but her eyes remained huge as she gazed around at all the stores, shoppers, and decorations that surrounded her.
One girl's hand clasped tightly in each of her own, Helen guided them through the crowd of people toward the photo studio. The flustered worker behind the counter told Helen that they were running behind schedule, and their Christmas photo appointment would have to be pushed back at least an hour and a half.
"All right," Helen replied with a sigh. "We'll do our shopping first and then come back for the picture."
As they left the studio, Jake approached them, muttering to himself. "Lousy space-stealing punks, I hope they rot in--oh, hi, girls!" he said brightly as they came within earshot.
Helen explained the situation, and the four started toward the next destination: the collectibles store.
"Mom loves these little angel figurines," Jake insisted as he examined a glass display class.
"So you say every year," Helen reminded him wearily, struggling to keep both her daughters from wandering away. "We always get her one for Christmas, yet I've never seen them displayed in her house."
"Oh." Jake looked disappointed.
She sighed. "Well, one more won't hurt. It's the thought that counts, I suppose."
"What thought?" complained Daria. "You just said you get her the same thing every year!"
Later, at one of the department stores, Jake pointed at a very pretty blouse. "Hey, that looks like something Erin would wear, doesn't it? Maybe they have it in her size."
Helen, trying to dodge the never-ending stream of shoppers that kept jostling past her, shook her head. "According to Mother, Erin only wears designer labels."
Quinn perked up. "What's that mean?" she asked.
"It means twice the price for the same stupid clothes," Jake grumbled.
"Coooool," Quinn breathed.
Next they made their way to the toy store to look for something for Jake's nephew Ben. Helen pointed to an action figure from a popular TV show. "What about this?" she called to Jake over the cacophony of shrieking children, noisy toys, and tinny Christmas music. "Doesn't Ben watch that one? Quinn, come back here!"
Jake growled under his breath. "I can just imagine Mad Dog rolling over in his grave if I got his grandson a doll!"
"Oh." She turned to another shelf. "I know he likes video games, and this one is on sale. Quinn, I told you not to wander off!"
He looked over her shoulder. "Not nearly violent enough for a future Buxton Ridge alum," he said with a shake of his head.
Helen considered reminding Jake that his father was dead and therefore unlikely to object to any gift they got for Ben, but instead pointed at the toy cars. "Any problem with those?" she asked. "Quinn, put down that doll right now!"
"Hey, neat!" Jake exclaimed, hurrying over to push one of the miniature pick-up trucks back and forth.
"Sold," Helen said as she pulled a few off the shelf. "Now let's get out of here before I have to drag Quinn kicking and screaming."
"Aw, I wanted to do that," Daria muttered. Quinn stuck her tongue out at her sister.
When they reached the bookstore, Daria's mood finally lifted in spite of Helen's reminders that she wasn't going to buy anything for her that day. As she blissfully paged through one of the children's books, Helen and Jake debated what to get for Amy.
"I'm willing to bet she already has this," Helen said, holding up a collection of classic Russian novels. "But who knows?"
"What about one of those?" Jake asked, pointing out a display of bestsellers.
"Not her style," Helen replied. "I think." She looked at another shelf. "Maybe an art book?"
"How about this?" Quinn asked, holding out a book of inspirational poetry with a picture of a doe-eyed fairy on the cover.
Jake and Helen both burst out laughing. "I think we'll just send her a gift card," Helen decided, catching her breath.
As they headed back toward the photo studio, Quinn suddenly screeched, "SANTA!" She pointed a finger and Jake and Helen saw that Santa Claus was, indeed, a short distance away.
Helen checked her watch. "Well, we do have a little time left before our photo," she told the girls. "Do you want to go see Santa?"
"YESYESYESYESYESYES!" yelled Quinn.
"Not really," said Daria. But it was too late--Quinn was already dragging the rest of the family toward the red-suited man.
After waiting in a long line of screaming children and short-tempered parents, the Morgendorffers finally reached Santa. Once at the front of the line, Quinn froze and stared at him in shock, so Helen nudged Daria forward first. "Go on, Sweetie," she coaxed.
Daria sighed and climbed onto the man's lap. "Hi."
"Ho, ho, ho!" he chuckled. "Have you been very, very good this year?"
Santa hesitated slightly at the flat answer, but recovered soon after. "And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?"
"Oh? And what kind of--"
"Doesn't matter," Daria interrupted. "If I haven't been good, then I won't get anything."
"Well," he stammered, "maybe if--"
"And how do you fit everybody's stuff in your sleigh? And how do you get to all the houses in one night? And how--"
"Okay, Daria," Helen called out, noticing Santa's increasing distress. "It's Quinn's turn now!"
Daria shrugged and hopped down, and Jake stepped up and plopped Quinn on Santa's lap.
"Ho, ho, ho!"
Before he could say another word, Quinn let out an ear-piercing scream.
Patting the girl gently on the shoulder, he reassured her, "Don't be scared! It's okay, little one!"
"No," Quinn whined. "Your boots! Ewww!"
Santa looked down at his feet, confused. His voice lost its former booming quality as he asked, "My boots?"
"They're icky brown! Gross!" Quinn sounded close to tears, so Jake quickly scooped her up again.
"Thanks," Helen called over her shoulder as they herded the girls away from the bewildered man. The family entered the photo studio, where the still-flustered worker informed them that they would be ready for them in five minutes. Helen took the time to smooth down her daughters' hair, straighten Jake's tie, and beg everyone to please, for crying out loud, smile for this picture.
The photographer painstakingly posed the four of them, but moments before he could take the photo, Quinn burst out, "No, Mommy! I wanna wear my blue dress!"
The fake smile didn't waver as Helen replied, "Your green dress is very pretty, Quinn. You can wear your blue dress next time."
"Pleeeeeease?" begged Quinn.
"No," Helen answered firmly. "Daria, smile!"
"No," Daria answered just as firmly.
Helen sighed, smile still frozen in place. "At least don't frown, okay?"
Jake noticed the price list on the wall. "Gah! How much are we paying for these lousy cards?"
The next day, Jake insisted that the family stay home. Helen, still exhausted from the previous day's outing, agreed. "We can put up decorations!" she suggested excitedly.
After a quick rummage through the attic, Jake carried down boxes full of lights and ornaments, as well as the artificial tree. They decided that Helen and the girls would stay inside and decorate the tree while Jake handled the outdoor lights. "And then we can all relax with some cocoa!" Helen added.
That afternoon, Helen set up the tree and the girls started rummaging through the boxes. "Put this on first!" Quinn cried, waving a clay ornament with her handprint in the center.
"That one's stupid," Daria argued. "Who cares about your stupid hand?"
Quinn stuck her tongue out at her sister. "Better'n your stupid face!" she said, pulling out a little frame ornament with Daria's baby picture inside.
"That's enough!" Helen scolded.
From outside, they all heard the scraping sound of footsteps on the roof.
"Santa?" Quinn asked in wonder.
"GAHHH!" they heard from above. "Crappy lights and their crappy cords! How did they get so damn tangled just sitting in a box for a year?"
"Nope," Daria answered.
Trying to distract her daughters, Helen said, "Look, the tree is all ready! Let's start decorating it, okay?"
Quinn picked up a pink unicorn ornament and hung it on a branch. Glaring, Daria pulled it back off again and replaced it with a dark green ball.
"Dariaaaaaaa!" protested Quinn.
The older girl crossed her arms defiantly. "That one was dumb. It's not even Christmasy!"
"'Christmasy' isn't a word, Brain!"
"How would you know, Brat?"
"Girls!" Helen interrupted sternly.
"Arghh!!! Where the hell am I supposed to plug these stupid things in, anyway?" Jake cried out from the roof.
The sisters remained focused on their argument. "I'm gonna put this one here!" Quinn said, putting the unicorn on the same branch, blocking the green ball from view.
"No, it should go here!" Daria countered, grabbing it and putting it out of sight at the back of the tree.
"Nuh uh! Your boring old ball goes there!" Quinn tried to grab the other ornament but Daria shoved her away.
"Moooommmmmmyyyyyyyy!" Quinn wailed as she stumbled backward a few steps.
"Dammit! It's like every other freaking bulb on the string is burnt out!"
"No more fighting!" Helen snapped. She pointed to one side of the tree. "Daria, you decorate that side." She pointed to the other side. "Quinn, you decorate that one."
They finished putting up the ornaments in sullen silence, broken by the occasional "Brain!" or "Brat!" The quiet was also punctuated by Jake's frequent shouts of horror or dismay regarding extension cords, loose shingles, and the likely parentage of the man who invented fuses.
When Jake stomped into the house, the house was decorated inside as well as out and the girls were sitting angrily on opposite sides of the living room.
"Good job, Jakey!" Helen offered hopefully. "This year we only lost power once!"
He glared and mumbled something incomprehensible but probably impolite.
Dropping the subject, Helen held out a mug. "Here, have some cocoa."
He perked up quickly. "Great!" He grabbed it and marched to the liquor cabinet. Pulling out a bottle of rum, he poured a generous amount into the mug and took a long drink.
"Be careful--it's still hot!" Helen warned.
"Don't care," Jake murmured, raising the mug for another taste.
A few days later, Helen went to the mailbox to find several envelopes and packages from various family members waiting for her. She brought them into the living room and was immediately swarmed by two small children who could sense gifts nearby. "Here's one from Grandma Morgendorffer and one from Grandma Barksdale," Helen told her daughters. "You can each open one of them."
As the girls ripped into the packages, Helen opened the first envelope to find a Christmas card with an idyllic scene of a large extended family gathered around a Christmas tree while smiling vacantly at each other. In swirling calligraphy across the bottom was written, "There's nothing like spending the holidays with family..." When Helen opened the card, the same family was shown glaring at one another. The inside read, "...so why not stay home and have a truly merry Christmas?"
Scrawled under the message in Amy's handwriting was, "Heard you're avoiding the old Barksdale train wreck Christmas this year. Congratulations and/or commiserations. I look forward to hearing about the new Morgendorffer train wreck Christmas." Helen rolled her eyes. Why does everyone assume I can't pull off a holiday on my own?
"Mommy, look what Gramma B sent!" Quinn held up a dress that was a size or two too large for either of them, and had obviously been worn many times before.
Helen peered into the package and saw many similar articles of clothing inside. Erin's hand-me-downs. Charming. Out loud she said, "Isn't that pretty? Daria, what did Grandma M send?"
Nose wrinkled in disgust, Daria held up two child-sized aprons that had "Happy Cooks Make Happy Homes!" embroidered on the fronts.
"Oh." Helen struggled to come up with something positive to say, but ultimately decided it would be safest to say nothing at all. Fortunately, Jake walked in the door shortly after.
"Guess what I've got?" he asked with a big grin.
"A misogynistic mother?" Helen muttered.
"Nothing. What have you got?"
Jake waved a large envelope over his head. "Our Christmas cards! Shall we rip 'em open and see how they turned out?"
Helen looked at Daria and Quinn, who were still eying the packages with mild disappointment. "Sure!" she replied, putting as much enthusiasm into her voice as possible. "Come on, girls. Let's look at our pictures!"
Quinn bounded over with very much excitement, and Daria followed with very little. Still, they were successfully distracted from the gifts. With great ceremony, Jake opened the top flap of the envelope and pulled out a stack of photo cards. He handed one to each person, and they all stared down at their family picture.
In the picture, Jake's eyes bulging outward from his face, which was red with frustration. Helen was smiling, but she was visibly clenching her jaw. Daria stared blankly at the camera with her arms folded, and Quinn was rolling her eyes and primping.
"It's..." Jake began, unsure how to finish.
"...unique?" Helen suggested.
"...weird," Quinn said, sticking her tongue out at the card.
"...funny," Daria said with a small smile.
"...us!" Jake finally stated proudly.
After a moment's thought, Helen nodded and patted Jake's shoulder. "Absolutely right," she said proudly. "That photo is 100% Morgendorffer."
"Yeah!" Jake agreed.
Taking the envelope from her husband, she added, "And next year we're going back to preprinted cards."
The following Saturday, the family woke up to see a white wonderland outside. "Oooh!" squealed Quinn. "Can we make snow angels today?" she asked her mother pleadingly.
Helen nodded and Quinn cheered. "Snow angels! And snowmen! And snowball fights!"
"And snow shoveling," Jake grumbled over his coffee.
Bundling the girls in warm clothing took nearly an hour, thanks to Quinn insisting changing scarves, mittens, hats, and earmuffs at least three times each. Daria struggled to read a book while wearing gloves until Quinn was finally dressed to her satisfaction. Helen opened the door and the sisters rushed out to the front yard, where Jake was already hard at work on the driveway with a shovel.
Quinn immediately flopped onto her back and began kicking and waving her arms to make a snow angel. She painstakingly got up again, careful to avoid messing up the print she'd made. "Perfect!" she cried.
Daria came over, crouched down, and traced horns in the snow with her finger on top of the angel's head. "Now it's perfect," she said with a smirk.
Before she could open her mouth to whine, Helen called out, "Why don't we each make a snowman?"
Immediately distracted, Quinn rushed over to start rolling snow. Daria shrugged and did the same. Helen gave her own snowman little attention as she worked, because she alternated between watching Daria and Quinn for signs of future arguments and watching Jake for signs of utter meltdown from stress.
"Damn stupid snow!" Jake complained as he tossed another shovelful aside. "I don't know why I even bother--it's just going to snow again anyway, and I'll have to do this all over again!" He paused for a break, leaning on the shovel's handle. "Helen, why the hell can't we just get a snow blower already?"
"Because you don't do well with machines," Helen answered. "Remember the time you almost destroyed the lawn mower?"
"It wasn't my fault," Jake protested. "That stupid mower started it!"
Helen just smiled at her husband. "You're doing a wonderful job, Jakey! I'm sure you'll be done in no time."
"Yeah, yeah," he grumbled, going back to his work.
Thinking quickly, she came up with something to improve Jake's spirits. "Don't forget about cookie baking this afternoon! Won't that be fun?"
"Hey, you're right!" Jake exclaimed, shoveling with more enthusiasm. "I've got a great idea, too."
"Uh oh," Helen muttered. Jake had a history of "great ideas" in the kitchen that usually ended badly for the rest of the family. Reminding herself that he meant well, she turned back to the girls to see that they were nearly finished.
"Those snowmen look fantastic," she gushed. Her daughters looked less impressed.
"No! It's a snowgirl," whined Quinn. "And she's too fat!"
"Well, I think she looks just fine," Helen reassured her. "And Daria, yours is...wearing a mask?"
"They're supposed to be glasses," Daria corrected her, "but I can't make them look right with snow."
"That's okay. We know what they're meant to be, right, Jake?"
"Gah!!! That's it, Helen! Next year we're buying a snow plow!"
"Helen, come try these!" Jake called. Helen saw that Daria was absorbed in her book and Quinn in her dolls, so she came into the kitchen to find Jake pulling a tray out of the oven. "I want you to be the first to try my special gingerbread cookies."
She looked warily at the cookies as Jake set them on a cooling rack. "'Special'?"
"I wanted to give them some extra spice, so I used Red Hots for the eyes."
Relieved, Helen accepted a cookie and took a bite...and immediately spat it into the sink.
"Also," Jake continued, his back to Helen as he continued placing cookies on the rack, "I doubled the ginger and the cinnamon."
Helen peered at the cookbook on the counter. "So...you used three teaspoons of ginger and two teaspoons of cinnamon?"
"Teaspoons?" Jake turned to stare at the recipe. "I thought that said tablespoons!"
Daria and Quinn wandered in from the living room. "I smell cookies!" Quinn said in a tone that clearly meant "Give me cookies!"
"Can I have one?" Daria asked, only slightly more polite in her delivery.
Before Jake could respond, Helen jumped in with, "Not right now, girls. It's too close to dinner." She was careful to stick the remains of her own cookie in the garbage can before either of them noticed it.
"Awww," complained Quinn, Daria, and Jake at the same time.
"Later," Helen said firmly. Trust me, girls; I'm doing you a favor. But how am I going to get rid of all those cookies before dinnertime?
On the last weekend before Christmas, Helen insisted that the family go out caroling.
"Caroling?" Jake asked doubtfully.
"Caroling," Helen replied, determination in her voice. "It's the last thing on my Christmas to-do list."
Jake glanced down at a nearby coffee table and noticed a Christmas card from Helen's mother. He could guess what kind of passive-aggressive holiday message lay inside, and it didn't take a huge reach in logic to work out that it was probably a direct cause of Helen's latest "Perfect Christmas" obsession.
"...Sure thing, honey."
"Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!" Jake belted out the lyrics at the top of his voice, while Helen struggled to keep up with his fast-paced singing. Quinn sang in a key of her own creation. Daria, silent, stood a little apart from the others.
"Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh!" The neighbors whose door they'd knocked on first watched them with frozen smiles on their faces, waited politely for the song to end, and applauded half-heartedly before retreating back inside their house.
"Daria," Helen admonished as they moved on to the next stop. "Why aren't you singing?" Getting nothing but a sullen look in return, she added, "Come on, Sweetie. Try to get into the holiday spirit."
Jake knocked on the door. As soon as the neighbor opened it, Daria stepped forward before anyone else could. "Here comes Peter Cottontail," she sang with little inflection, "hoppin' down the bunny trail. Hippity hoppity, Easter's on its way."
"That's not a Christmas song!" Helen corrected gently.
"You didn't say what holiday spirit," Daria said flatly.
Realizing that no one had paid attention to her for at least twenty seconds, Quinn bounced in front of everyone else and screeched, "Deck the halls with plows of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la!"
"Gawd, that's awful!" snorted the bored-looking teenage boy who'd opened the door. "You sound like a dying cat!"
Quinn's face fell. "Hey!" yelled Jake, furious. "You jerk!"
"Jake," Helen said, putting a hand on his arm. "Holiday spirit, remember?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, then turned back to the teen. "Merry Christmas, jerk!"
The rest of the caroling didn't go much better. When the family lost count during "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and no one could remember what the true love gave nine of, they decided it was time to go home.
"Well," Helen sighed as she hung up her coat, "at least we had fun, right?"
Jake looked at their two grumpy little girls, but then back at his desperate-looking wife. "Um, yeah!" he agreed. "Best caroling ever!"
Helen's stress levels only increased as Christmas Eve approached. That night, she and Jake helped the girls prepare milk and cookies (part of Jake's second, more successful batch, made under closer supervision) to leave out for Santa.
"It's stupid," Daria protested as she carried the glass into the living room. "Everybody leaves milk and cookies for Santa. Doesn't he get tired of the same thing?"
"I love milk and cookies!" Quinn exclaimed, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. Helen quickly reached out to steady the plate she was holding before any of the cookies could slide off.
"Well, we could leave something else out instead," Jake suggested hopefully. "Maybe some buffalo wings and a martini?"
"Jake," Helen said warningly.
"I love Santa!" Quinn continued, oblivious. "I love Christmas, too!" Her parents exchanged an uneasy look over her head, both realizing how overexcited the little girl was. Even Daria, in spite of her complaining, had shining eyes and seemed slightly more energetic than usual.
"Time for bed?" Jake said tentatively. Both of his daughters looked at him as though he'd suggested climbing onto the roof of the house and flying.
"If you don't get to sleep soon," Helen reminded them, "then Santa might skip over the house!"
"Nuh uh," argued Quinn, "we've been good!"
Daria snorted at this, but agreed, "Santa's nicer than that."
"Well, the sooner you fall asleep, the sooner it will be Christmas morning!" Jake tried in desperation.
This time the girls didn't even respond.
Helen sighed. "If you agree to go to bed right now, you can each have a piece of Christmas candy."
Daria and Quinn considered her offer for a few moments, then nodded and reached out their hands. Helen handed them each a piece of candy and began herding them toward their bedrooms.
Once they'd finally settled their children into bed and felt reasonably sure they'd fallen asleep, Helen and Jake began carrying gifts out from their hiding places. Armed with scissors, wrapping paper, and tape, they worked diligently to get each present wrapped until the last one was finished and both of them were barely able to stay awake.
That's when they noticed that they'd forgotten to put tags on the gifts as they'd wrapped them.
At last, far later than they'd hoped, they dropped into bed to sleep. Or rather, Jake fell asleep while Helen lay awake fretting about what the next day would bring. She finally drifted off with Amy's words running through her mind: Morgendorffer train wreck Christmas.
The next morning, Helen and Jake were woken up--too early--by eager little girls. They followed them out to the living room and feigned surprise at all of the gifts under the tree before making a beeline for the coffee pot.
Once properly caffeinated, they settled in to watch Daria and Quinn tear into their gifts. Jake and Helen cringed when Quinn unwrapped the book and Daria unwrapped the music box that they'd accidentally mislabeled in the previous night's confusion. Fortunately, the girls merely shrugged, swapped gifts, and moved on to the next one.
That afternoon, when the chaos had settled, Helen cleaned up the wrapping paper and other debris while her daughters played with their new toys and Jake dozed off on the couch. She sighed with relief--so far everything had gone well, with only a few hiccups and (for Daria and Quinn) surprisingly little arguing.
Finally beginning to feel confident, Helen started working on cooking their Christmas dinner. Jake had been banned from being alone in the kitchen after the cookie incident, so Helen had done all of the meal planning and preparation herself.
She'd decided to go with a simple yet traditional home-cooked meal: ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and dinner rolls. The mashed potatoes were instant, the gravy was from a packet, the green beans came out of a can, and the rolls were brown and serve, but as far as Helen was concerned it was home-cooked.
As dinnertime approached, Helen surveyed her work proudly. It looked like something right out of a magazine. She almost wanted to take a photo and send it to her mother, but decided to settle for calling in the rest of her family.
Jake came in first, and made a great show of oohing and ahhing over the meal. Daria and Quinn trailed in less excitedly, but they eyed the food hungrily and Helen considered that compliment enough.
Then Jake cut into the ham. "Um...honey?" he said gently. "I think something's wrong."
"It's not overcooked!" she exclaimed. "I was careful!"
"Oh, absolutely," he agreed. "But...I think the inside is still frozen."
Helen dropped into her chair. "What?" she whispered.
"But it's no problem!" he added right away. "We'll just pop it back into the oven a little longer while we enjoy these mashed potatoes and...." he trailed off as he lifted the serving spoon, from which the mashed potatoes dripped like water.
"I think I might have added too much milk," Helen said weakly.
Quinn peered into the gravy boat next to her plate and wrinkled her nose. "It's lumpy," she complained.
"No problem!" Jake chirped, his voice growing higher every second. "Let's just have some of these great green beans--"
"--cold," Daria's flat voice interrupted.
Helen frowned. "But I only just took them off the stove...which...I forgot...to turn on...." She buried her face in her hands.
Now desperate, Jake squeaked, "Dinner rolls?"
That was the moment that the smoke alarm went off. "I never took them out of the oven!" Helen cried.
Jake hurried to turn off the alarm and pull the now-burnt rolls out of the oven, then returned to the dining room to complete silence. Nervous, he sat down and tried to think of something to say.
Helen beat him to it. "I've ruined Christmas."
He opened his mouth to object, but she stood up and continued in a clear, calm voice, "Everyone was right. I can't do this on my own. We should have just gone to my mother's house after all. I failed."
"Yes, it is!" Helen shouted, finally breaking down. "I can't even cook a simple dinner!" She snatched the platter with the ham and marched into the kitchen.
"It's not too late; we just need to--" Jake was cut off by the unmistakable sound of a five pound ham being hurled into a garbage can.
Returning to the dining room, Helen began gathering up the other serving bowls and carried them all to be dumped unceremoniously into the garbage.
Daria and Quinn just stared at each other in shock. Jake sat awkwardly in his seat until he heard the sobbing. It took less than a moment to get to his wife's side and wrap her in a hug.
"And now I've spoiled everything," she whimpered into his shoulder. "The girls will look back on this as the Christmas their mother lost her mind."
"No, no, no," Jake reassured her, thinking, Maybe we'll be lucky and they won't remember it at all.
"All that planning and work, and all for nothing." The tears still fell, but her tone turned bitter. "Amy sure called it, didn't she? A train wreck. I took Christmas and crashed it just like--"
"Shh." Jake cut her off and leaned back to look at her. "Look up."
Confused, Helen raised her eyes to see what was above them. "Mistletoe?"
He leaned in and gave her a kiss. "Nothing's ruined, honey. Christmas isn't over. We'll make this work, okay?"
Equally shocked by the sudden kiss and Jake's unusually calm demeanor, Helen nodded. "Okay."
"Merry Christmas, Helen."
"Merry Christmas, Jakey."
"Mooo-OOO-oooom! Daria says Santa's gonna take back all the presents after New Year's!"
"She's only mad 'cause it's true!"
She looked back toward the dining room. "Oh! We still need something for dinner! The girls are probably starving."
Jake's eyes lit up. "Leave that to ol' Jakey!" he said. "I'll just whip up--"
"No," she said, a slight smile coming to her lips. "One ruined dinner per night is enough." Jake was disappointed, but shrugged it off in his relief to see Helen's mood improving. Helen opened the freezer. "I'm sure we must have something we can--ah! Perfect!" She reached in and pulled out a box. "These were on sale last week, so I picked up a few and thought we'd see if they were any good."
Jake looked at the box. "Frozen lasagna?"
"It's not the Christmas dinner I'd planned, but--"
"It's Christmas and it's dinner," Jake said. "Who cares about the rest?"
Helen chuckled softly and began opening the box. "Maybe we'll just make this our own family tradition."
Thank you to RLobinske for beta-reading.