Paper Dancers

It is eleven a.m. and Nels is already on his third Diet Coke of the day. He’s on the phone with his sister Ida, who’s trying to convince him to join what remains of their family for Christmas. Outside his window, the chained-up dog next door is prancing on his back feet, barking breathlessly, tongue flapping, delighted by the fat white flakes. Inside, dirty dishes stink in the sink.

Come on, Ida pleads. As if it might be an incentive, she adds: Bruce is bringing his girlfriend. 

Oh, whoopee, says Nels. 

I like this one, Ida says. She has a palliative effect on him. She has a daughter. 

Ida has always wanted a daughter. Instead she ended up with three untamable boys. 

How old? he asks, despite himself.

I don’t know. Elementary school. 

He downs the Diet Coke in one draught. I’m sorry, Ida. I have to work. 

You don’t even have a job.

I have applications to fill out, Nels says weakly. You know what they say: applying for jobs is a full-time job.

Ida’s laugh is wheezy and dark. 

Have you been smoking again? 


He hears the flick of a lighter, the crackle of a cigarette. Liar, he says. 

Just come, she says, between inhales. It can’t be as bad as last year. 

He laughs, too, then stops laughing abruptly, trying retroactively to read her tone. Last year was their first Christmas without Mom, their fourth without Dad—not that Dad was such a picture of excellence. Nels drank a bottle of schnapps in Maeve and Morty’s driveway. His own pink puke melted the sunlit snow.

He opens the last can of the six-pack. The satisfying pop of punctured aluminum. Fuck, he says vehemently. No, you know what, I’m going to stay home. I’m just going to stay home and do some fucking work and not leave the house until the twenty-sixth, earliest. 

Aren’t you not supposed to isolate? 

I’m not isolating. 

What, do you suddenly have friends? 

Sick burn.

Do you have people from the Program you can spend time with over the holiday? Do you have meetings lined up? 

He swigs the DC. I don’t want to spend Christmas with those losers.

Then come spend Christmas with us losers. 

I’ll come next year. Once I get used to…

Look, Nels, Ida says—  


—I don’t want to go either, she continues. Do you know that? But it’s a slippery slope. If this Christmas we decide it’s too hard, we’ll put it off. Then, next year, we’ll think, What’s the big deal? It’s just another day. And the year after that, we’re not even a family anymore. 

The dog next door has settled down. His chain rests on the asphalt. Snow melts into his black fur.

Slippery slope, Ida repeats. Don’t make me spend Christmas alone with Auntie Maeve, Uncle Morty, and Bruce and some chick.

And the chick’s daughter. 

Right. Why not invite some strangers from Craigslist while we’re at it. 

What about Rob? No Rob this year? 

No, Nels. No Rob this year. No Rob next year. No Rob ever again. 

The shame rolls in like fog, obscuring his vision. Shit, he says. I’m sorry.

He is so self-absorbed he’s forgotten his sister split up with her husband. Just one of his many failures. Add it to the fucking list. He lets the blinds down on the old dog and the dog begins to bark again. Why do you want me there? he asks from the shadows.

The answer comes as easily as catechism: Because you’re my brother and I love you. 

He wants to say, What does that even mean? He wants to tell her, You don’t even know who I am. But perhaps she does know him. Perhaps she does love him, despite himself. Hope nags, faint as the barking of the dog. So he says, Even though I’m a piece of shit? 

Oh, God, she says. Get over yourself. 

The man who agreed to be his sponsor, Tim, a magnanimous character in his early sixties, overlarge in body and spirit, marvelously Zen, coaches Nels on the upcoming trip. Nels is to find meetings there, Zen Tim says, near Maeve and Morty’s. He is to set alarms on his phone so he can get to said meetings in time. He is to call regularly, as often as he needs to. He is to pray. We don’t do this alone, Zen Tim says. Nels, he says, are you listening? 

Maeve and Morty’s is a train to a plane to a rental car. It takes everything he’s got not to order a thumb-sized bottle of whiskey on the train. Even though it is ten in the morning, on the flight they pass out free plastic flutes of champagne because it is Christmas Eve. In a voice so low that the flight attendant has to ask him twice to repeat himself, he requests a Diet Coke instead. She brings it brightly but leaves the champagne on his tray table and charges him six dollars. He gives his champagne to the kid next to him, who can’t be more than twelve, doubtless a veteran of divorce, flying alone on the holiday. The kid seems excited—Hey, thanks, man!—until he tries it. After tasting the stuff he leaves it sitting half-empty on his own tray table. Eventually an attendant comes over and clears it into a black plastic trash bag, four ounces of bubbly golden light that, Nels has been told, will kill him. 

He rents a car that sits low to the ground and fishtails uneasily on black ice. It is just four but the sun is already low in the bare trees. After an hour’s drive under heavy skies he parks the deathtrap in M&M’s infamous driveway and sits in the driver’s seat sucking on his vape pen, looking in. Not a bone in his body wants to go inside that little house, not one bone. He calls his sponsor. It goes to voicemail. 

Heya, hi there, it’s Nels, merry Christmas Eve. I’m just…outside of my aunt and uncle’s place. I’m about to walk in. I foresee, uh, a few booby traps: you’ve got your eggnog, your schnapps, your garden-variety asshole brother and his girlfriend. And her daughter. She’s bringing her daughter. I, uh, I’ll check in again later. I’m sure you’d tell me to pray, so, yeah, I guess I’ll go ahead and pray before I go in there. All right, hope you’re, uh, making merry. Talk to you soon. 

Nicotine vapor twists up toward the windshield. Nels can’t remember the serenity prayer. Some kind of mental block. Even as a child Nels was never taught to pray. All he can do is sit in a cold car on the side of a road in planet Earth’s Northern Hemisphere for one quiet moment before entering the chaos. White sunlight, trapped in stark branches, illuminates the fogged-over glass. Eventually he takes a misty breath and opens the car door.

Inside Maeve and Morty’s everything is noise. Ida’s boys, his demon nephews, are catapulting themselves off the couch. Ida is scrubbing furiously at the residue from an upturned bottle of blue sparkly glue on the kitchen table. Maeve is yelling from the kitchen, and Morty is on his knees under the tree, ass-up, cursing violently, attempting to silence the lights, which whine “Joy to the World” like so many glowing LED gnats. With every one of Morty’s expletives, the boys scream more loudly.

Look who it is! Ida exclaims. 

Bruce? Maeve yells.

Ida stands on tiptoes to kiss Nels’ cheek, blue sparkly rag in hand. How was the trip? 

Perilous, says Nels, but just seeing his sister fills him with relief. He puts his suitcase down by the wall near the door. 

Maeve looks up from the blender and beams at him. Bruce! Is that Bruce? 

It’s Nels, says Ida. 

Oh, Rob! Maeve is overjoyed.

Maeve, it’s Nels, Ida repeats. 

Oh, Nels. Nels, I didn’t know you were coming! 

Nels shoots Ida a look. 

Ida rolls her eyes noncommittally. I guess you’ll be sleeping on the couch.

Tiny old Maeve comes up to hug him, wiping her hands on her pants. Her hair is coarse and fragrant. Sorry, dear, I’m not wearing my glasses.

Sorry to disappoint, says Nels. 

How’s Hollywood? 

It’s been a few years since I worked in Hollywood. 

Nels works on sets for Broadway shows now! Ida says.

Not exactly, Nels says.

Oh my! says Maeve. Morty and I just loved The Lion King.

They stand around smiling at each other. 

Maeve says, Do you kids want some nog? 

I’d kill for some nog, says Ida. 

Nels says, A virgin one for me.

Ida gives him a thumbs-up. He pretends not to see. 

Are you sick? says Maeve.

He begins to say no, but stops. It’s a disease, his sponsor has told him. He has a disease. So he says, Yes. Just a little under the weather. 

If Maeve remembers the debacle at his mother’s funeral, she doesn’t let on. Probably she’s unaware. With her memory she might have been told and promptly forgotten. Does Ida know? He doesn’t think so. But he tries anyway to look at Ida through alternate filters: in this light, she knows and is being kind. In the other, she doesn’t, and is just being herself. Maeve turns back toward the blender, pours three little porcelain cups full of fluffy cream, and spikes them all. She hands him one of the tainted cups but Ida intercepts it. 

Nels wanted one without rum, Ida says loudly. In this light, she knows.

Oh! says Maeve. Right! I’ll put this aside for Robbie. 

Rob’s not coming, says Ida. I told you that! 

Oh no, says Maeve. What happened, dear? 

We split up. He couldn’t handle my grief after Mom died. Plus he cheated on me. Multiple times.

Maeve turns around to get a fourth cup. I always liked Rob, she says. 

Ida turns to Nels, makes her left hand into the shape of a gun, and mimes shooting herself in the head. In this light, she doesn’t know. 

Nels grabs her hand and squeezes.

This is what siblings are for: miming shooting oneself in the head at. Once Bruce arrives, it will be all about Bruce. Nels and Ida’s subtle camaraderie will be drowned out, as it always has been, by his thunderous personality. For now, though, Nels and Ida make a good team. 

They are three: Nels, the eldest, handsome, quiet, and strange; Bruce, an affable moose with a rage streak; and plain-faced, reasonable, magnificent Ida. How anyone could leave her—how Rob, of all people, could leave her—Nels does not know. He has only ever gotten the faintest impression of Rob, drunk as he’s been every time they have met, but the guy always struck him as a cardboard cutout of a person—flimsy, vain, easily bent out of shape—and Nels tells Ida as much on the back porch when they go out for a smoke break. 

She sucks on her Camel as if her life depends on it and, when it’s nearly down to the filter, lights another. Thank you for telling me that, she says. The worst thing about Rob is how much everyone loves him. 

I don’t know why, says Nels. There’s nothing to him. No depth. He’s 2-D.

She smokes pensively.

You’re not going to get back together with him and then hold that against me, are you? 

No, no, she says. Rob moved out. 


Last month. 

No kidding. 

It’s over for real.

I’m sorry I’ve been so unavailable, Nels says.

She waves him away. We’ve all been going through it. Are you seeing anyone? 

You kidding? Nels almost chokes on vapor. No. No. I am in no shape to date.

She laughs at him. You look so stupid, sucking on that thing. Do you want a real cigarette? 

He is so grateful for Ida. 

Giant Bruce barrels in, bundled in layers like a piano in a moving van. Ho ho ho! he hollers. Christmas is here! 

He is attended by two slim figures, one tall and one small. The tall one holds out her hand to Morty, who’s just trundled out of the bathroom. 

Hi, she says, you must be Morty. I’m Ellen. Thank you for having us!

Morty looks up at her cheekbones and silky dark hair and seems mystified. This your girlfriend, Brucie? 

Bruce says, Everyone, this is Ellen! Ellen, this is my uncle Morty, aunt Maeve, sister Ida, and brother Nels. Didn’t expect to see you here, buddy! 

Bruce claps Nels on the shoulder, his smile bright and false.

Nels is tongue-tied and frightened. He feels himself blush. He turns to Ida: You didn’t—?

Possibly for the benefit of his girlfriend, Bruce says, Glad you came! He squeezes Nels’ shoulder hard, like a warning. Ida, where are the boys? 

Making snowflakes in Mort’s office, Ida says.

So much vacuuming, laments Maeve.

I’ll take care of it, Maevey.

With a big well-practiced smile, Ellen offers, So nice to meet you all!

And this—Bruce brings forth the small figure who’s been lurking behind them—is Ellen’s daughter Ellie. 

He looks right at Ida and Nels tries hard to read his expression.

Aw, little Ellie, wow! says Ida, tipsy with drink and daughter envy. Aren’t you pretty in that fancy coat? 

She’s Ellen, too, says Big Ellen of her daughter. We call her Ellie for short. It’s a family name. 

In the way of certain good-looking women, Tall Ellen seems almost apologetic, and her insecurity melts Ida immediately. It’s a beautiful name! Ida says. Can I get you a drink? Glancing at Nels, she adds: Alcoholic, non-alcoholic, we’ve got it all! Eggnog? Coke? Uh, milk? 

She leads Big Ellen into the kitchen and Bruce puts a guiding hand on the child’s upper back. He does not look at Nels as they pass. Nels is left in the living room alone with the singing tree. Considering the scene he’s just been a part of, he attempts to put things together. Bruce knows. Ida doesn’t. 

He looks at his phone. No missed calls, but a text from his sponsor: Hi Nels, my suggestion: Find ways to be of service. 

He finds it hard to believe that being of service will cure him. Nevertheless in the lull before dinner he gets on his knees and tries unscrewing a small colored bulb or two. Down here “Joy” is louder. Finding the source of the music turns out not to be so difficult. There is a small speaker at the very end of the cord. Perhaps he can just snip it off. Wondering if there are any pliers around, he looks up momentarily, and finds he’s alone in the living room with Little Elle. He feels a catch in his belly, his heart: surprise, delight, dismay. 

Oh, hello. 

She stares at him, big black irises reflecting the colored lights. She’s kept on her Burberry coat and a pair of silky pink ballerina slippers, soles wet from light snow. A vain, distrustful, acquisitive child, he thinks with unwelcome affection: wearing her treasures to keep them safe. 

The Christmas tree repeats the sounding joy. Repeats the sounding joy. Repeats, repeats, the sounding—

Pretty annoying, isn’t it? he says. 

She nods. 

Our names rhyme, he says to her, as a way of starting conversation. I’m Nels,  you’re Elle. Right? Do you prefer Ellen, Elle, or Ellie? 

She shrugs. 

Is it not fun having the same name as your mom? he guesses.   

She rolls her eyes. 

Well, he says, thanks for coming to Christmas with my family.

I didn’t really have a choice, she says. Her voice is deeper and raspier than he expected. The incongruity of it is lovely.

I guess you don’t have much choice about where you end up, at your age, he agrees.

I wish I was at my dad’s, she says sulkily.

Where’s your dad? 

Los Angeles. He has a pool.

He can see her in his mind’s eye, cutting through blue water in a red two-piece. Red elastic stretched over slim hips reveals a faint tan line below. The pallor of skin untouched by sun.

He half unscrews a small blue bulb near the end and the lights begin to flash. Panicked, he screws it back in. Are you a dancer? he asks, indicating her shoes.

I wish, she replies. 

What’s stopping you? 

Mom says I’m not allowed to take dance classes until I get my grades up. 

What grade are you in? 


Aha. What kind of dance would you do if you could? 

She frowns at him. Ballet, she says.

Despite himself he sees her in a leotard. Budding breasts hard as peach pits under the thin black polyester. He feels sick to his stomach. 

Bruce busts in. Here she is! he calls loudly. He grabs Ellie’s hand and yanks her out of the room. 

At dinner however Bruce seems in high spirits. Forever and always The Moose has been a performer. Hamming it up in the comedic roles of every school play. Lewd touchdown dances in the end zone as the crowd went wild. Nels both admires and loathes his brother’s ease in the spotlight. Admires because he could never, ever. Loathes because Bruce has stolen their sister, she’s no longer paying Nels any mind, she’s just sitting there laughing at Bruce’s dumb jokes, sweet fickle Ida, flushed with eggnog and relief. Loathes because this isn’t the Bruce he feels he knows, the Bruce he remembers. The Bruce of their childhood was a fat curious boy, sensitive and quick to cry. This Bruce is hardened and funny and mean. He mocks Ida’s eldest, all in good fun—Ida shouts, Bruce! You apologize!—but she’s laughing. The child’s cheeks burn and he hides his face in his mother’s arm. Ida and Tall Ellen admonish Bruce in harmony and Nels shoots a look at Little Elle. A perfect miniature of her mother, she does not seem to enjoy Bruce’s spiteful jokes. She is concentrating on balancing her fork on the middle knuckle of her middle finger. Her hands are the size and color of madeleines. She’s refused to remove her Burberry coat. He catches her eye and breathes on a clean spoon and hangs it from his nose. She stares at him for a moment before breaking into a lopsided smile. He crosses his eyes. Her laugh is high and sweet.

The alarm on Nels’ phone goes off. Reflexively, apologetically, he looks at Bruce, and sees his brother was already watching him entertaining Little Elle. 

Got somewhere to be? says Bruce. 

Nels gets up to clear his place. 

Wait, you’re leaving? says Ida.

I’ll be back, says Nels. 

It is as if a bubble closes back up around the table when he leaves. Conversation picks back up seamlessly. Ida’s youngest crawls into Nels’ vacated chair. Without him, the table is complete. 

His own breath and nicotine vapor clouding his vision, he enters the address of the meeting into his phone and drives through backwoods roads until he gets to the VFW. Here he finds a spot in the half-full parking lot. A pasty woman in a festive red and green scarf directs him down the hall, to the left. He sidles into the room quiet as he can but a skinny Black man in a Santa hat pulls out a stackable chair for him. It leaves a pale streak on the dank green carpet. Obediently Nels sits down. He gets a few polite smiles and finds it difficult to smile back. Stuck to a bulletin board under a taxidermy moose head are pamphlets and business cards advertising snow removal and clean fill wanted. On a plank of plywood covering a pool table sits an urn and some Styrofoam cups and a disposable aluminum tray of hard cookies. Twenty-five or so unfamiliar people discuss their difficulties. One woman admits that last year on Christmas she relapsed. Nels gets up and grabs a handful of Russian rocks. A man says he’s been living in a homeless shelter and every night, all around him, he hears people using. He says, It’s a fucking bitch staying sober in there. Nels devours the cookies one after the other without tasting them at all. 

Anyone new to this meeting or in from out of town who’d like to say hello? says the man in a Santa hat. They all look at Nels. 

My name is Nels and I’m an alcoholic, he recites. 

Welcome, they repeat. He pops another cookie in his mouth. 

Anyone new or counting days who’d like to share their day count? Santa asks.

Nels raises his hand, just barely. Seventy-nine days, he manages. Powdered sugar escapes his mouth and gets on his jacket. 

Applause. Real smiles. He puts a dollar in the basket.

When it is his turn to share he says he isn’t sure what to say. 

Just say what’s in your heart, advises the homeless man. His nose is a river map of rosacea. 

Nels closes his eyes and wishes he were anywhere else. With his eyes closed he finds it easier to be honest. He admits he wishes his mother could see him sober. He admits his family doesn’t want him here. Things got so dark this year, he says, he can’t bear to—. It used to be he drank away the shame. Now that he’s given up drink, shame is a mantle he can’t remove. Shame has fused to his body, a burial cloak.  

The funeral was on a Saturday in November. Branches scratched at the sky. He stumbled in the aisle. All the mourners’ eyes on him. Sorry, sorry. He was too drunk to be the what’s-it-called. Sorry. Some cousin he’d never met got up to help carry the coffin. He got behind the wheel of his car to join the caravan to the cemetery. Was surprised to find he’d already downed all the vodka in the glove compartment. The cars pulled out and he waved them on—See you there—but, seeing double, got out of the car in search of something to sober him up. The church had vacated quickly. No one there but a silent janitor and some holy radiator clanging. In the basement he found small chairs, small desks. Finger paintings hung on clothesline. He opened a closet and encountered a giant box of Goldfish and a box of wine. He consumed both.

Coming to, he became aware he was in custody. A bald cop slapped his cheek. Preconscious, brain rattling, thirsty as hell, he took a swing at the guy. Toppled himself and the chair he was cuffed to. The cop righted him. 

Aren’t you Moose’s big brother? 

He was told he’d been found by the Sunday School class on the floor with his pants at his knees. He was told he reached for one of the kids and suggested she help him finish. 

Nels pleaded with the guy not to tell Bruce. 

The cop said, You’re going to have to register. 

The Sunday school never pressed charges, however. The prison he found himself in for the next several months was of his own making. 

Here in the VFW near Maeve and Morty’s, Nels refrains from telling the whole story. He stops at Goldfish and a box of wine. 

He adds, I never saw my mother buried. 

They all hmm with great compassion. 

He adds, The next few months were fucking hell. So here I am. 

Keep coming back, they say. 

It works if you work it, they say. 

After the meeting the relapse lady thanks him for his share. Skinny Black Santa corners Nels with urgency in his eyes. He says, We do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 

Nels says, But what if we do? What if that’s all we wish to do? 

With conviction Black Santa says, You’re only as sick as your secrets. 

Nels would like to punch them all in the face. 

They do not tell you what to do with your shame. They do not tell you how to keep it from fusing to you forever. All Nels wants is to scrape off his skin and turn off his mind, to forget himself. He drives too fast on the dark roads. As if God’s finally heard him, at a turn he encounters an ugly little dive bar. A neon woman kicks a leg up outside. He pulls into the lot and sits and vapes. His throat is sore and thick. Gravel spins in the tires. He punches the wheel. He gets out of the car.

Inside it is medium bright and smells of sour beer, sour breath, sour men. The clientele are few but raucous. Christmas Eve! Nels sits on a stool and waits. The bartender is a twenty-something in a Minute Men Armory t-shirt. With smug irony he asks Nels, What can I do you for, old timer?

Nels says, I’m, uh, still deciding.

Take your time. The bartender gives him a coaster and a glass of tap water. Nels eyes the young unfamiliar men at the bar and the old familiar bottles behind it. The best shit they’ve got is Makers Mark. He can taste it in his mind. 

His phone buzzes in his pocket. His sponsor. Instinctively Nels looks around. He is not being watched. He steps outside. Without his coat, goose bumps form on his arms. The cold stings his eyes. 

Zen Tim’s voice is crackly. Bad connection. Where are you right now? 

He admits he’s standing outside a bar. 

Okay, says Zen Tim. 

They didn’t expect me to be here. My brother didn’t expect me to— he doesn’t want me to be around his girlfriend’s—

Zen Tim interrupts: We’re not in the business of mind-reading. What anyone else is thinking is none of your business. Do you have a meeting lined up?  

Just went to one.


Just went!

Did you share honestly? 

I left some things out. 

Can you hear me, Nels? 

I can hear you, he practically shouts. 

Look, Nels, I hope you can hear me. Share honestly. Call. Meditate. Pray. Keep your higher power nearby. Look for ways to be of service. Try doing the dishes. It’s fucking Christmas. There are always dishes to do. Call again if you need to. Scratch that. Call in an hour. I might not pick up. Just call. You can do this. Take it an hour at a time. Half an hour at a time. Hell, set your cell phone timer for fifteen minutes. Can you not drink for fifteen minutes?


Can you? 

I don’t know. 

How about ten?

I’ll do five.

Do five, then. But Nels.


You listening to me? 


Get the fuck away from that bar. 

He sticks his phone in his pocket and, gripping it like a talisman, looks up at the stars. The tiny points of light blur in his watering eyes. There are so many of them here, so far from the city, in the endless sky. Steam rises from his mouth, his lungs, his skin. Is this prayer? he thinks. And then: How isn’t this prayer? 

The bartender steps outside behind him and lights a cigarette. Hey man, he says. 

Nels nods. 

Rough night? 

Nels digs his hands farther into his pockets.

Yeah, man, says the bartender, misunderstanding his gesture, Fucking fuck, it’s cold.

Nels manages a smile.

Hey, says the bartender. I feel like I know you. Did you play football in high school? 

My brother did. Bruce—

Holy shit, your brother’s The Moose? I thought you looked familiar. Yo, that guy was a dick.

Yeah, well. Nels smiles with something like relief. Like father, like son. 

Fuck, yeah, the bartender says. Fuckin tripped me in the fuckin hallway. Fuckin gave me fuckin wedgies. Yeah. Fuck. You tell fucking Bruce the Moose to fuckin eat a dick, okay? 

I—Nels laughs. I’m not going to say that. 

What, you afraid of him, too? Listen, come back inside and I’ll give you a shot on the house. What’s your poison? Vodka? Tequila? You a whiskey man? Pick your fuckin poison, dude. 

Nels produces the phone from his pocket and looks at it with recognition, though the screen is dark. Sounds good, man, sounds good, he says. Let me just—he presses the home button to light it up—five minutes. 

Harried and hurried, Nels shuffles back toward the car. 

Back at Maeve and Morty’s the tree is still whining, though the pitch of the song seems to have fallen a half step or so. The kitchen is clean. There are no dishes to do. Half a bottle of eggnog rum sits on the counter. Maybe he should put it away. Put it in a cabinet. Be of service. He walks toward it but swerves away as if repelled. He is being ridiculous.

Though it’s only a quarter past nine, everyone has retreated to their rooms. Maeve and Morty go to bed early, and so do Ida’s boys, tucked away with their mother in the attic. Likely Bruce has shut himself away with Ellen in the basement rec room. Where is Little Elle sleeping? he wonders, and tamps down that thought. The bottle of rum sits on the counter. His suitcase sits untouched by the door. And Heaven and nature sing. And Heaven and nature sing. And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Be of service, Nels remembers, and turns his attention to the Christmas tree. He tries to muffle the tiny speaker with the tree skirt, but there must be another tiny speaker somewhere, because muffling does little to quiet it. He gets up irritably and paces back to the kitchen. The rum sits on the counter. Everyone’s asleep. 

He sets a timer on his phone. Fifteen minutes. He can make it fifteen minutes.

Back at the tree he tries popping in a loose bulb near the end of the string of lights. At last, at last, the whining ceases. In the fresh silence he breathes. He listens. A sixty-year-old clock in the hallway ticks loudly. He can feel his family breathing behind the walls. He can feel the bottle of rum on the counter. 

He wanders up the hallway, lit only by an ancient Sleeping Beauty nightlight that he knows so well, from so deep in childhood, it might as well be the light source for his unconscious. On a sideboard is the loudly ticking clock. Morty’s office door is open and the remnants of Ida’s kids’ snowflakes are everywhere. Slips of white paper litter the rug. A few big crumpled flakes lie on the brown swivel desk chair and ancient computer keyboard. He remembers Maeve’s lament: So much vacuuming. Revving up the loud vacuum would not be of service, it would just wake everyone up. What he could do would be get on his hands and knees and pick up the scraps.

Paper and string and tape and glitter and glue and three pairs of safety scissors are piled in a Tupperware container Ida must have brought from home. Nels opens it and takes out a sheet of paper. He folds it in thirds and with the safety scissors he cuts a long arm; a torso with a lifting, triangular skirt; a pair of thin legs split in frozen glissade; an arm in the air; a head with a bun. He unfolds it and the three dancers tumble apart to be admired. His phone alarm goes off. Rum. He resets it. He picks up another sheet of paper and begins again. He passes hours this way, in fifteen-minute increments, and by midnight he has used all the paper. The floor is covered in shavings of white. When all the paper has been transformed into dancing silhouettes he opens the glue and lets the viscous liquid drip upon their surfaces, and shakes the glitter onto the dollops. He cuts rough lengths of string, shoulder to fingers, and threads it through the tops of the dancers’ heads. He collects them in his hands and brings the string and tape out to the living room, where the tree glows silent in the dark. Alarm. Rum. Reset.

He drags a kitchen chair into the living room and stands on it. If he stretches he can just reach the ceiling with the tape. A dancer, toes pointed outward, rotates slowly in an undetectable draft. A quartet of dancers pliés above the television. Dozens of dancers spin in slow motion, glitter flashing in the faint colored light. It is so pretty it makes Nels shiver. Alarm. Rum. Reset. He wants so badly not to keep this magic to himself. 

He climbs the attic stairs to see who’s there. Three small forms and Ida take up the two bunk beds. He creeps halfway down the basement stairs, avoiding the spots that creak. When his eyes adjust to the dark he can see the outline of two adult bodies on an air mattress on the floor. Casting about for a third, he finds a sleeping bag curled and breathing on a loveseat. It is close enough to the base of the stairs he thinks he can wake her without disturbing his brother. He makes his way to the couch and there she is, small mouth just slightly open, her eyes slightly open, too, two slivers of white between her lashes, two little waning moons. 

Little Elle, he whispers. Ellie, he barely breathes. 

Her irises roll down to waking. Is it Christmas? she asks loudly. 

Shh. No, he breathes. I have something to show you. Come with me. 

It is dark as a mineshaft up the steps into the hall. He holds her hand in his. He leads her down the passage past the nightlight and the clock. What are we doing? Little Elle asks. It’s a surprise, Nels whispers. At the doorway to the living room he covers her eyes lightly with his two hands. Unbearably sweet, her lashes against his palms. He guides her into the room and lifts his hands from her eyes. The tree glows quietly. The dancers spin. Bits of glitter fall from paper skirts and shoes and hair. The only sounds are their own breath and the lisp of paper against paper. A smile spreads across Little Elle’s face and she lies down on the rug, the better to look up. Nels retrieves an afghan from the back of the couch and, covering them both, lies down beside her. The paper dancers twirl and glow. Flakes of glitter fall. So pretty, she murmurs. Nels’ alarm goes off and he silences it. In a minute he’ll get her up and bring her back to the rec room. Or, at least, he’ll get up and go sleep on the couch. But right now, this moment, it’s as clear and aching as prayer. She yawns and rests her head against his shoulder. No one is watching. He is safe. She is safe. They are safe.