Picture Perfect : A Christmas Short Story

The doorbell rang at the worst possible time. The kids were having their usual dinner time meltdown, the casserole was burning in the oven, and Mark still wasn’t home from work. With everything Ellen had to do to get ready for tomorrow, she really needed Mark’s help tonight.

She yanked open the oven and pulled out the smoldering casserole, burning her hand in the process. She cursed, turned off the oven, and rushed to answer the front door.

It took a moment before she registered what she was seeing – a surly teenager with a backpack that looked like it had been dragged through the mud. Mark’s niece Jessica.

“Can I come in?” Jess asked, stepping forward.

“Uh, yes. Of course. What are you doing here?” Ellen asked, moving aside.

“My mom and I had a fight. I came here to chill for a day or two,” she said.

Speechless, Ellen stared at the girl, not sure what to say to her. Jess couldn’t stay here. Not tonight. Her presence was always disruptive and the teen was never helpful in any way, to anyone.

“Should I put my stuff upstairs in the guest room?” Jessica asked.

“The guest room…” No, that room was full of Christmas decorations, unwrapped gifts for the kids, and new Christmas outfits lying across the bed, still needing to have a few wrinkles ironed out before tomorrow. “No, it’s kind of a mess up there right now. Um, we’ll talk to your Uncle Mark when he gets home.”

Jess shrugged. She always shrugged and it drove Ellen up the wall.

A blood-curdling scream erupted from the living room at the very moment her phone rang. “Jess, can you…?”

 “Want me to see what the monsters are doing?” she asked, rolling her eyes and gesturing toward the door. “Sure. Whatever.”

“Thank you,” Ellen said, feeling a tiny shred of gratitude toward the girl. “Hello,” she said into her phone.

“Hi, Mrs. Lewis?” a chipper voice replied.

“Yes.”

“This is Ginger with Quality Portrait Studio. I’m calling about your appointment for tomorrow. The photographer we originally scheduled to do your shoot had to have emergency surgery. We can still do your photographs tomorrow, but we’ll have to move up the time.”

“How early?” Ellen asked. There was no use getting upset. They couldn’t help it if someone got sick. As a mom, Ellen had learned long ago that life was a constant series of cancellations, emergencies, and last minute changes. She would just have to make do.

“Nine.”

“Is that the latest time you have available?”

“For tomorrow, yes. If you need a later time, we can book you for next weekend.”

“No. Tomorrow is fine. Nine o’clock it is,” Ellen agreed.

“Okay, we’ll see you then. Sorry for the inconvenience and thank you for being understanding.”

Ellen’s heart raced as she thought about having to push her already tight schedule ahead by three hours. Where was Mark when she needed him? There was still so much to do—feed the kids, bathe them, and put them to bed. Then there was cleaning the living room and tidying the Christmas decorations so tomorrow’s pictures would be perfect.

Her head began to throb as she made lists in her head, detailing everything that would have to be organized before the photographer arrived in the morning.

A car door slammed outside and Ellen breathed a sigh of relief. Mark came into the kitchen a few moments later. He kissed her on the cheek before taking off his coat and draping it over the back of a kitchen chair.

“Hey, Babe. How was your day?” he asked. His easy, relaxed smile faded as she launched into a tirade about her rough day at work, an argument the kids had gotten into on the way home from daycare, and finally, her complaint about the photographer changing their appointment time.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to have the pictures taken at the studio?” he asked.

“Mark, we’ve been through this. The Christmas cards will look so much more personal if the pictures are done at home. Plus, if we go to the studio, we can’t have the dog in the photos.”

“So?”

“So, Ruby’s family. How would you like to be excluded from your family photos?”

He put his hands up, warding off further argument from her. “Okay, okay. You’re right. What can I do to help?”

Some of the tension eased from her shoulders. Mark worked long hours, but when he was here, he was really here. Never afraid to pick up a mixing spoon or a bottle of window cleaner, Mark was truly a partner in their marriage. He sometimes seemed to have a difficult time understanding why she got hung up on things like Christmas photos and choosing the perfect holiday outfits, but Ellen felt like he always did the best he could to support her.

“’Sup, Uncle Mark!” Jess said, slouching into the kitchen with both kids close behind her.

“Daddy!” the boys yelled in unison before launching themselves into his arms.

“Hi kids,” he said, gathering the wriggling children into a hug. “Hey, Jess. I didn’t know you were here.”

“Surprise,” the teen said with an exaggerated smile.

“Let’s sit down and eat before dinner gets cold. Let’s wash your hands first,” Ellen said, turning to the boys.

“I can help them,” Jess offered.

The three youngsters left the room, leaving Mark and Ellen alone again. Mark grabbed a stack of plates and silverware while Ellen placed a salad and bottles of dressing on the table.

“What’s up with Jess?” he asked.

“She said she got in an argument with her mom. I don’t know the details. We haven’t had a chance to talk,” Ellen replied. She hadn’t had a chance to do anything.

“What the hell is going on over there?” Mark asked. “This is the second time this month she’s come over here to avoid her mom.”

“Third,” Ellen corrected. “You were in Denver at a conference the last time.”

“I need to call Kelly. I know teenagers can be rough, but…” Mark went silent when Jess and the kids came back into the kitchen.

The boys were exuberant during dinner, eating enthusiastically and talking over one another, telling their dad about their day. Ellen tried to focus on their chatter, but her mind kept going back to her list and all the things she had to do to get ready for tomorrow. Only when Mark mentioned it later, did Ellen realize how quiet Jess had been during the meal.

“I’m really worried about her,” Mark said, rinsing off a plate and handing it to Ellen to place into the dishwasher. “She barely ate any of her food.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” Ellen replied. “She’s not the first teen to have an argument with her mom. I think it’s pretty normal.” Not that she had any experience to go by. Her mother had been an alcoholic and when Ellen was a teen, she was pretty much on her own. Her mother never nagged her about school work, wearing too much makeup, or any of the other things parents typically talked to their teens about. She was too deep in the bottle to care.

Ellen’s mother had certainly never cared about celebrating holidays or creating the perfect family photo for Christmas cards. Maybe that’s why Ellen was so obsessed with making the holidays perfect for her children. She wanted them to have all the experiences she’d never had. She wanted to create memories and traditions they could pass on to their own children one day.

“I’ll talk to Jess after I get the kids to bed,” Mark said. “What do you need me to do to help?”

“Just keep the kids out of my hair,” Ellen replied, closing the dishwasher and starting it. “Or at the very least, keep them out of the living room. I need to finish cleaning and decorating.”

“Well, don’t stay up too late. It doesn’t have to be perfect,” he said.

She didn’t say anything in response. If everything wasn’t perfect, what was the point? They couldn’t take pictures with piles of unsorted mail in the background. Or folded laundry stacked on the sofa. Sighing, she squared her shoulders and prepared for the long night ahead.

The doorbell rang and Ellen rushed to answer it. Who could possibly be ringing their doorbell at almost eight o’clock at night?

“Kelly,” Ellen said, not too surprised to see Jess’s mother standing there. Hopefully, she’d come to collect her daughter. “Come on in.” She stepped to the side, opening the door wider.

“Sorry to barge in on you so late,” Kelly said.

“Not a problem. I’m up cleaning anyway.”

Kelly had remarried two years ago, just a little more than a year after her husband’s death. Jess, by all accounts, still hadn’t gotten used to having a new stepdad. To complicate matters, Kelly and her new husband now had a one-year-old little boy, so Jess was often put in the position of being babysitter. It was a stressful situation for a teenager.

Jess, once a delightful little girl, had grown increasingly sullen and uncommunicative over the past couple of years. Mark had asked Jess’s mother to take the girl to counseling. He even offered to pay for it, but Kelly always declined, saying she’d “do it later” or “things were getting better and it really wasn’t necessary.” It was a year ago when the fights between Jess and Kelly escalated to the point where Jess was escaping to Mark’s and Ellen’s house to cool down. Over the past couple of months, Jess had sought refuge with her aunt and uncle once or twice a month.

 “I hope Jess hasn’t been too much trouble,” Kelly said.

“Not at all.”

“I know, I know. I should have come over sooner, but I was too furious to deal with her.” Kelly’s exhausted demeanor morphed to irritation when her daughter entered the room. “Speak of the devil.”

“Mom…”

“I don’t want to hear it. I’m sick of listening to your voice. I’m sick of your disrespect and your attitude. And just who do you think you are to run off without telling anyone where you were going?”

Jess looked down at her shoes, but Kelly continued her rant. “I’m tired of having to track you down and drag you home by your badly dyed, scraggly hair. One of these days, I’ll call the police and let them deal with you. Maybe some time in juvenile hall will do you some good.” Her tirade went on to include several expletives.

Ellen gasped at the way Kelly spoke to her daughter. She could understand a parent losing their cool with a challenging teenager, but there was no excuse for obscenities, threats, and insults.

Jess began to cry big, silent tears that dripped down her cheeks and landed on her scuffed shoes. Without thinking, Ellen put her arm around Jess and pulled her close to her side.

Mark came into the room, his gaze quickly taking in the situation. “What’s going on? Kelly, I could hear you shouting from all the way upstairs.”

Kelly, hands on her hips, scowled at her daughter. “I’ll tell you what’s going on. Your niece is a nightmare, that’s what’s going on.”

“I think you need some time to cool down,” Ellen told her sister-in-law. “Would it be okay if Jess stayed here the rest of the weekend? We can bring her home Sunday night and by then, you’ll both probably feel more like talking.”

Kelly shook her head. “She’s already been a burden to you, and besides, why should she be rewarded for her behavior? She’s grounded.”

“If she’s grounded, we can respect that,” Mark said. “We’ll make sure she stays inside and does chores. Trust me, we can handle a grounded teenager. I think you both need a break, Kelly.” His voice was shaking. Ellen had only seen him that angry a few times.

“Fine. Keep her. But don’t be surprised if I move out and leave no forwarding address while she’s gone. I’m not sure I want her back.”

Ellen was fairly certain Kelly was joking, at least about moving out while her daughter was away, but it wasn’t very funny. How could a parent say they didn’t want their child? Especially when Jess was crying brokenheartedly? No matter how angry she was, Kelly should have hugged her daughter and told her they would work things out. Punishment was one thing, but Kelly had crossed the line from being firm to being outright cruel.

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Mark said, his voice rising.

“Oh really? Well, wait until your boys are older. Maybe you’ll understand where I’m coming from when you have your own snotty brats to deal with.”

“Kelly…” Mark began.

She cut him off. “Don’t even begin to lecture me. I don’t want to hear it. If you have such a problem with how I’m raising Jess, feel free to take her off my hands.”

“Maybe we will. I’d love to have her,” Mark replied.

“Ha. We’ll see how long that lasts. I’d give it a week.” With that, Kelly turned on her high heeled boot and walked out the door.

Ellen hugged Jessica. “Everything will be okay, Sweetie. I promise.”

“She…she hates me. Please don’t make me go back there,” she sobbed.  “I want to stay here with you.”

Ellen and Mark exchanged a look. Yes, parents and teens argued. It was normal. But Kelly was verbally abusive toward her daughter. Ellen could only imagine how Kelly spoke to Jessica when they were in the privacy of their own home.

Mark sighed. “We’ll all sit down and talk about it tomorrow. Your mom loves you. She’s just very upset right now. Why don’t you go upstairs? I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

When Jess was gone, Ellen turned to her husband. “I know what you’re going to say, but we can’t make such a life-altering decision on the spur of the moment. Emotions are running high right now. I doubt Kelly meant what she said.”

But the thing was, Ellen didn’t doubt it. And she suspected it wasn’t the first time she’d said such things to her poor daughter.

“Fine, we’ll talk about it tomorrow. Something has to be done. If we don’t take Jess in, we’ll insist their whole family gets counseling. This can’t go on.”

That was one thing Mark and Ellen could both agree on. Something had to be done. For now, though, she had to focus on getting ready for tomorrow. Everything else would have to wait.

When she had finished cleaning just before midnight, the living room was picture perfect. The fireplace mantle was bedecked with garland strands intertwined with twinkling white lights. Stockings were strategically placed across the mantle, even though it was a month too early for Santa to arrive. The artificial tree looked like a department store display. The kids had helped her decorate the tree last weekend, lumping ornaments together every which way, but tonight she’d rearranged the ornaments and tinsel in a more artistic manner.

Feet and back aching, Ellen climbed the staircase. She peeked in on the boys. Both were sleeping in Jacob’s room, snuggled up soundly in the twin bed. She found Jess sound asleep in Evan’s bedroom. Retrieving the family’s outfits, she went down the hall to the laundry room and heated the iron. For a moment, she considered waiting until morning to do the ironing, but decided against it. She had enough to do with getting the boys fed and dressed.

It was after one o’clock by the time Ellen fell into bed. Worry about the perfect photo session intermingled with worry about Jess. Mark was right. They needed to talk to Kelly, maybe insist on counseling again. Jess was in crisis. Something had to be done. She just wished the crisis and drama could wait until after this weekend—heck, until after the holidays would be even better!

Ellen’s alarm shrieked at six o’clock, and for a minute, she was sorely tempted to hit the snooze button. But there wasn’t time to spare. She jumped in the shower, hoping the steaming water would help her awaken. Ordinarily, she threw her hair into a messy ponytail on Saturday mornings, but this was no ordinary Saturday. Her hair and makeup had to be just right. Mark took a shower while Ellen fussed over her appearance. She left her new slacks and holiday sweater hanging in the closet for later. Dressed in sweats, she woke the boys and set about making breakfast.

Jess stumbled into the kitchen as the boys were sitting down to pancakes. She sniffed the air. “Those smell good.” She slid into a chair and reached for the platter of warm pancakes, serving herself a generous helping.

“Morning,” Mark said, coming into the kitchen. “How’d you sleep, Jess?”

“Okay, sort of. If you can call sleeping in a kiddy bed comfortable.” She stuffed an enormous forkful of pancakes into her mouth. “Better than sleeping at my own house, though.”

Ellen and Mark exchanged a look. Ellen was the first to glance away. She knew what Mark was thinking, but she didn’t want to start up a heavy conversation right now. Deliberately, she leaned over and fussed over Jacob, helping him cut his sausage links into bite-size pieces. When breakfast was over, Mark took the boys upstairs to wash up while Ellen hastily tidied up the kitchen.

“Do you want me to help with anything?” Jess asked.

“Nope. I got it under control,” Ellen replied, placing the final dirty plate into the dishwasher.

“So, what’s up with these pictures you’re taking today? Is this, like, for some really important event or something? Like for a commercial? Or one of those flyers that the stores send out to their customers?”

Ellen smiled. “No, nothing like that. It’s just pictures for our Christmas card. No big deal.”

“Kind of seems like a big deal,” Jessica observed. “You guys are kind of going nuts over it.”

Ellen shrugged. “It’s just, well, we want everything to look nice. That’s all.”

“Things always look nice at your house. Even when you think it’s a mess, it still looks better than the best day at my mom’s house. And there’s a lot less screaming.” Jess laughed, but Ellen’s heart broke.

Ellen made up her mind to have a serious discussion with Mark the very second the photo session was over, but for now, there simply wasn’t time to deal with the severity of Jessica’s situation. She patted her niece on the shoulder as she left the kitchen. Jogging up the stairs, she glanced at the time on the clock in the upstairs hallway. It was just after eight. She had less than an hour to wrestle the kids into their holiday outfits.

The doorbell rang promptly at nine. Mark and the boys waited in the living room while Ellen dashed to answer the door.

While the photographer set up her equipment, the kids tugged at the tight necks of their turtleneck shirts, complaining about how uncomfortable they were. Mark assured them they wouldn’t have to wear their outfits much longer. Jess sat slumped in a recliner, her expression unreadable.

“Okay, let’s all stand in front of the fireplace,” the photographer said. “Parents in the back, kids in front. Can you get the dog to sit in front of the kids?”

With the photographer’s help, Ellen and Mark struggled to get everyone into place. Ellen straightened the collar on Jacob’s turtleneck and smoothed down Evan’s sweater.

“Looking good,” the photographer said. She snapped a couple of shots. “Beautiful. Okay, let’s move over here closer to the Christmas tree.”

Everyone shuffled about, trying to arrange their bodies into the poses the photographer assured them would create a phenomenal Christmas card. All the while, Jess sat in the recliner, peering at them from beneath her overgrown bangs while she picked absentmindedly at a hole in her jeans. For the first time, Ellen noticed how worn her clothes looked and how badly she needed a haircut. How long had it been since she’d been to the beauty shop or out shopping for clothes? Maybe she’d take the teen out this weekend to do a little shopping. Surely, Kelly wouldn’t begrudge her daughter the opportunity to get some much needed clothing, even if Jess was supposed to be grounded.

Jess looked down at her cell phone, squinting. Was she having trouble seeing? Ellen decided she’d have to ask her later if she’d had her eyes examined recently. Kids were supposed to have their eyesight checked once a year. If Kelly was too busy to take her, Ellen would make an appointment herself.

The photographer moved the boys over to the side just a little and then asked Ellen to put her hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “Okay, perfect…”

“Wait,” Ellen said, stepping out of the carefully created casual pose. “Jess, why don’t you join us?”

“But it’s just for the family,” Jessica replied, clearly caught off guard.

“You are family. Come on.”

“But…I’m not dressed up.”

“So what? You look great. The pictures don’t have to be perfect, you know. It’s not going in a fashion magazine. It’s just for family and friends.”

Jessica hesitated for a moment before joining the family by the Christmas tree. The photographer arranged everyone to accommodate the new family structure.

“Wait,” Ellen said again. She pulled off her Christmas sweater and handed it to her niece. “Put this on. It’ll be more festive.”

“But it’s yours,” Jessica said, already pulling it over her head. The sweater engulfed her. She rolled up the sleeves and a sudden grin split her face, reminding Ellen of the little girl she’d been before her father died, before the fights with her mother, before everything she’d known had been taken from her.

“Why does Mommy get to take off her sweater?” Jacob whined. “Can I take mine off too?”

“Soon,” Mark promised.

“Are we ready?” the photographer asked.

“Yep. Ready as we’ll ever be.” Ellen ran her fingers through her hair, knowing it probably looked a mess. For the first time since the photo shoot started, she didn’t care.

The photographer took several more shots before their session came to an end. The boys bolted upstairs to change out of their holiday outfits. Mark followed the boys upstairs while Ellen spoke to the photographer to set up an appointment to view the proofs.

When the photographer left, Ellen spoke to Jessica. “Thanks for taking pictures with us.”

Jessica shrugged. “It was fun. Like having a real family.”

“You have a real family.”

“Who? My mom and stepdad? They only care about the baby. They don’t care about me. I’m nothing but trouble.”

“Your mom will always be your family. She loves you. But your Uncle Mark and me are real family too. That’s why we wanted you to be in the pictures with us. Because you’re family and we want you to live with us.”

“Really?” Tears rolled down Jess’s cheeks and she threw herself into Ellen’s arms.

“Really.”

Despite what Ellen had told her husband last night, some decisions were best made without over thinking. She didn’t need to think about it. They didn’t need to discuss it further. Jessica needed her family. She needed Mark and Ellen.

*****

Two weeks later, Ellen sat down with the photographer to look over the proofs. She chose an obscene number of photos to purchase in addition to ordering Christmas cards to send to all their loved ones.

“Did you want to order any of these?” the photographer asked, pointing at the first photos she took – the ones with Mark, Ellen, and the boys. The ones without Jess.

“No. We’re only going to order the photos with the whole family.” Ellen glanced at the pictures without Jess. While they were lovely, they weren’t complete.

She smiled down at the picture they’d chosen for their Christmas card. She much preferred the photographs where her hair was in disarray, where the boys tugged at their uncomfortable turtlenecks. The photographs where a teenage girl wore an oversized holiday sweater and smiled at the camera with hope in her eyes. These were the photographs that showed the whole family—the only ones that really mattered.

THE END

_________________________________________________________________________

Picture Perfect is available for free download on Smashwords, Google, iTunes and at a number of other retailers, but I thought it would be nice to upload it to my blog for Christmas. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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