“Lottie, it’s New Year’s Eve,” Dad said. “We’re going to stay up until midnight!”
“Really?” Lottie asked. Her normal bedtime was eight o’clock. “How late is midnight?”
“Twelve o’clock,” said Mom. “You’ll be staying up four hours extra. Do you think you want to take a little nap now?”
“No. Naps are for babies,” Lottie said. “I can help with the puzzle.”
Lottie helped with the puzzle until it got too boring. She ate chips and watched a movie. At first staying up was exciting. But then she started to feel tired. She yawned.
“You can’t be tired yet, Lottie,” Dad said. “We still have three hours to go.”
“I’m not tired,” Lottie said. She was tired. Her eyes started closing on their own. It got harder and harder to open them and stay awake.
“Don’t go to sleep. You’re almost there. Just a little over two hours, Lottie,” Mom said.
Lottie suddenly felt suspicious. Her parents were always telling her to go to bed. Why did they want her to stay up now? It didn’t make sense. Maybe these weren’t her real parents.
Lottie felt a little less tired. She needed to find her real parents and rescue them. She started to search the house.
“What are you doing?” Her maybe-not-real-mom asked.
“I’m looking for something,” Lottie said.
“What are you looking for?” Her maybe-not-real-dad asked.
“It’s a secret,” Lottie said.
“Just stay out of our room,” Maybe-not-real-mom said.
Aha! Of course they’d hide her real parents in the one place she normally wouldn’t look. Her real parents wouldn’t mind if she went in their room just this once. They’d want Lottie to save them from the not-real-parents.
Lottie looked in other places until the not-real-parents lost interest. Then she opened the door and snuck into her parents’ room. She looked under the bed. Boring. No people. She looked in the closets. Nope. She checked the bathroom. Empty.
Lottie looked out the window. It was too dark to check outside. She carefully closed the bedroom door and went back downstairs. She needed more information.
“What happens at midnight?” Lottie asked.
“It will be a new year,” Maybe-not-real-mom said.
“It’s so much fun, Lottie,” maybe-not-real-dad said. “We’ll bang pots and pans together and yell and make lots of noise!”
“In the middle of the night?” Lottie asked.
“That’s right,” maybe-not-real-dad said.
That confirmed her worst suspicions. These couldn’t be her real parents. They’d never tell her to stay up late and make lots of noise at night. She wasn’t supposed to bang pots together or yell in the house in the middle of the day.
“Hmmmm,” Lottie said. She tried to look like her normal self. She was feeling tired again, but she didn’t want to fall asleep around the not-real-parents. She looked around.
She could squeeze in behind the couch. She went to her bedroom and got her blanket and pillow. She started to crawl backwards, pulling them in behind her.
“Lottie, what are you doing?” Not-mom asked.
“I’m going to sleep,” Lottie said.
“But you’ll miss the New Year!” Not-dad said.
“I don’t care. I’m going to sleep now,” Lottie said.
“All right, if you’re sure,” Not-mom said.
She would find her real parents in the morning. They couldn’t be hidden far away. Maybe they’d come back on their own. Maybe the not-parents were going away at midnight, and if she was awake they’d take her too. All the more reason to fall asleep now.
As she drifted off, she heard Not-dad say, “But she’s always wanting to stay up late.”
“Kids are so funny,” Not-mom replied. “Sometimes I wonder what she’s thinking.”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Mom said. “Time for the nativity. Alice and Ben will be Mary and Joseph. Beth is an angel…”
“Yes she is,” Dad said.
“…and Robbie is a wise man…” Mom continued.
“Yes I am,” Robbie said.
“A real wise guy,” Alice said.
“…and Dad will be a shepherd. I’ll read the story,” Mom said.
“I’ll get my costume and set up the camera,” Dad said. He wandered off in the direction of the kitchen. Mom started bustling around, pulling things out of the box she’d brought into the living room.
Robbie was wearing a large embroidered tunic over his clothes and a cardboard crown. Mom handed him her empty jewelry box. “There you go. Very handsome. Now, sit still,” she said, and pointed at the couch.
Mom had sent Alice off to change into her blue dress. When she returned, Mom pinned a scarf to her hair with bobby pins and gave her a baby doll to hold. “All right. You look great. Now, sit over there,” Mom said. She pointed to a chair.
Ben had already changed into his Sunday clothes. Mom smiled. “Looks good, Ben. Find a seat.” Ben sat by Robbie on the couch and Mom changed Beth into her white dress.
“Honey, are you ready yet?” Mom said, looking towards the kitchen.
Dad returned wearing a bathrobe and munching on a cookie. “I can’t find my cane,” he said.
“It’s right here. I brought it in with the other costume things,” Mom said.
“Oh, all right,” Dad said. He started setting up the camera.
“Dad, did you bring us cookies, too?” Robbie asked.
“You’ll get your costume dirty,” Alice said.
“Would not,” Robbie said.
“Would so,” Alice said. She stuck out her tongue and Robbie leaned over the arm of the couch and snatched the baby doll.
“Mom!” Alice yelled. “Robbie stole baby Jesus.” She started to wail.
“Robbie, give it back,” Mom said.
“Fine,” Robbie said. He tossed the doll back. Alice stopped wailing and glared at him.
Mom flipped through the pages of her Bible, checking her bookmarks. “Almost ready?” She asked Dad.
“mmhmmm. Almost,” Dad said.
Beth was trying to grab the camera. “Could someone take her, please?” Dad asked.
“I will,” Ben said. He picked her up and carried her to the couch. “Beth, do you want to sing Jingle Bells?”
“No, teach her Silent Night,” Alice said.
“She likes Jingle Bells best,” Ben said.
“Bells,” Beth agreed.
“Dashing through the snow…” Ben began.
“Not again!” Robbie groaned. He leaned over the arm of the couch and snatched the doll again. “Here, let her play with this instead.”
“Hey!” Alice said.
“Baby!” Beth said, looking delighted. She cuddled the doll close and grinned.
“Fine,” Alice said. She smiled. Robbie looked surprised.
“I think I’ve got it,” Dad said a few minutes later. “Is everyone ready?”
“Yes,” they chorused. He pushed a button.
Mom began reading. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”
And the nativity went well. Beth didn’t want to give up the doll, so Alice just carried her around too. Beth toddled over and sat on Dad’s lap and showed him the doll when it was time for her part, then Dad brought her back to Alice-as-Mary.
Robbie presented the chest with a flourish on his turn. It was over so quickly. Dad turned off the camera. “I think now it’s time for those cookies, Robbie,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I think let’s go!” Robbie said. And they did.
“A Halloween party in November?” Jared asked. “That’s different.”
“The Mortimers always have the scariest Halloween parties, but they hate how commercialized Halloween has become. They say they like to keep their party separate from all the candy and the store bought costumes,” Carl said.
“I guess that makes sense.” Jared checked the calendar. “Things are a lot less busy now, too. I’ll come.”
“Great. Wear the scariest costume you can think of. This isn’t a kiddie party,” Carl said. “You’ll see.”
Carl came to pick Jared up on the night of the party. He’d grown a short beard and mustache and was wearing glasses with round lenses. He rolled down his window. “Tell me about your mother,” he said.
“Freud isn’t scary,” Jared said.
Carl pointed at Jared. “And your toga is? What are you supposed to be?”
Jared adjusted the fake knife at his belt as he sat down. “I’m a backstabber,” he said.
“Oh. That is a little scary,” Carl said. “Let’s go.”
Jared had never met Mr. Mortimer. Carl introduced him at the door. Mr. Mortimer looked rather ordinary and didn’t seem to be wearing a costume. Jared didn’t ask why, but he did think it strange.
Carl told Jared to go on ahead while he talked to Mr. Mortimer. Inside the house, everything seemed pleasant but normal. Most of the guests were dressed for a nice dinner party. There were flowers everywhere and classical music playing. Jared felt completely out of place.
Jared found an empty chair next to a rather large arrangement of lilies and rosemary and sat down. The man in the seat next to him, brown hair, brown suit, brown shoes, turned and smiled. “Hello,” Jared said. “I’m Jared Hombard. Who are you?”
“Hmmm,” the man said. He smiled a little wider and wrote something in his notebook. “Jared Hombard. Got it.” He looked up. “Oh, sorry. I tend to use gatherings like this for a little research. Can’t seem to leave the job at the office,” he said.
“What do you do? Are you a writer?” Jared asked.
“Oh, nothing interesting like that. I’m an auditor for the IRS,” the man said. “But enough about me, tell me more about you.” The man held his pen ready to write.
“I need to go,” Jared said. He wandered around the party, meeting a divorce attorney, a bill collector, and a local politician. He was avoiding his evil sister-in-law who really should be out-of-state and not at this party, when he bumped into Mr. Mortimer.
“Oh, sorry!” Jared said. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Are you enjoying the party?” Mr. Mortimer asked.
“Um, actually I think I’ll be going soon. I can walk home if Carl’s not ready,” Jared said.
“Don’t you live rather far away?” Mr. Mortimer asked.
“The exercise will be good for me,” Jared said.
“That’s true. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy my party,” Mr. Mortimer said. He clasped his hands together and looked at Jared as though he was trying to see something written on the inside of his skull. “To make up for it, I’ll give you a tip. Cut down on the sweets. Complications from diabetes is a terrible way to go.”
“Oh, are you a doctor?” Jared asked.
“No, I’m death,” Mr. Mortimer said.
“I’ve got to go now,” Jared said. He walked straight home and threw all the rest of the Halloween candy in the trash.
“So, what did you think?” Carl asked when he called later.
“That was the scariest Halloween party I’ve ever been to,” Jared said.