The oldest cousin, let's call her Cedar, trots up to me. Cedar holds a green and blue box in her hands, and for a moment I think she’s going to hand it to me. It’s stirring, since she’d be the only non-grandparent who remembered me this year. It almost hurts that I’m a broke invalid teen with nothing to offer her in return. Our family stretched the bank to get as many gifts for them as we could.
Then I see CEDAR on the FOR label. She is toting one of her own trophies.
She asks, “Where’s your present?”
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “Maybe Santa will bring me something tomorrow.”
“No.” Her face contorts. “What did you get me?”
Like magic, the guilt dissipates. Her father’s loaded. I look aside the box she’s clutching, recognizing both an overflowing stocking and six packages for her by the coffee table. I point to her stack.
“Isn’t it in there?”
Cedar waddles off to investigate. I’m about to get a drink when she returns.
She reports, “It wasn’t in there.”
“Did you check under the tree?”
I’m in the kitchen when she re-returns. Now she carries fists instead of a box. Her head cranes around the entrance, as though losing sight of the Christmas tree will cause her trove to evaporate. Maybe Santa will rescind.
She asks, “It wasn’t there, either.”
“Are you sure?” I ask, hoping that a return to the tree will get her caught up in her other gifts and she’ll forget about me.
I slosh my plastic cup of tap water and lag behind her to the living room. Cedar actually elbows her sister on her way under the tree skirt. By now the skirt is lonely. Only discarded bows keep it company; the goods have been dragged to the four corners of the room for rummaging.
Near the fireplace, my little brother talks with concern to our dad. The poor little guy is close to tears with incomprehension over why the others have so many more boxes. Dad is doing his typical bad job of hiding outrage. The in-laws got him the perfect gift: another reason to be angry at someone.
Cedar purses her lips up at me. This is not at all her fault, but teenaged cynicism doesn’t care about fair.
“It’s not there,” she repeats.
“That’s funny,” I say. I wave my palm at the tree’s twinkling lights. “I put it next to the present you got for me.”
The look on her face sticks with me for years. It’s like I’ve gotten a Math problem wrong. Even the tone of her response suggests I’m the dumb kid.
She says, “I didn’t get you anything.”
And I say, “How about that?”
I remember going to check on my sister, but not much else. Christmas isn’t really my holiday.