Jenna wakes to a dimly lit living room, nestled in the brown hand-me-down recliner with her feet up. Currently the only lights on in the apartment are that of the Christmas tree and the lamp on the table beside her. Her home still smells like gingerbread from the cookies she and Lulu baked after Becky, Dawn, and Ogie had all gone home, and the windows are frosted from the bitter cold outside and approaching snow shower.
In her lap, Lulu is sleeping soundly, sprawled out and cuddled into Jenna's chest, covered in her favorite blankie. At Jenna's side, sitting precariously on the arm of the recliner, are copies of Goodnight Moon and 'Twas The Night Before Christmas. Her daughter had loudly protested the idea of reading just one (it couldn't possibly be bed time without the first, and it couldn't possibly be Christmas Eve without the other), so two it was. Besides, she could budge on Lulu's bedtime tonight.
Trying not to disturb the slumbering 5-year-old, Jenna cranes her neck to check the clock across the room.
She'd been asleep for over an hour. With a yawn, she sets the books on the side table and looks down at the child again.
Lulu is peaceful, making no noise except a quiet little snore. Jenna runs her fingers gently through the girl's red curls and can't help but feel her heart swell, as it always does in moments like this. Pride and affection take over, and she can't help but lean over to place a kiss on her forehead.
For a moment, she reflects on her plans for Christmas morning. Tomorrow, for the first time since Lulu was born, her daughter will wake up to a pile of presents, including books, puzzles, new art supplies, and--this is what Jenna is most excited for--her first bicycle. The last few years had been rough with extra expenses, renovations for the pie shop, and getting on her feet after the divorce, but this year Jenna had been able to set back enough money to spoil the child rotten.
Jenna sits there for just another minute or two, stroking Lulu's hair and savoring the moment; she knows it's precious time left before her little girl grows up and becomes too big for bedtime stories and snuggles. But right now, they're here, and they're safe. The rest of the world can't disturb or harm them. The protective bubble Jenna had worked so hard to form around their little family unit can't be infiltrated.
As the clock ticks closer to11:00, Jenna knows she needs to get Lulu to bed and set the presents under the tree. Ever so quietly, gingerly, she reaches down for the lever to release the recliner's leg rest and cradles Lulu to pick her up and carry her. Surprisingly, with Lulu's blankie over her shoulder, she's able to transport the child to her room and tuck her into bed without waking her.
Jenna kneels down next to the bed and, for a moment, Lulu stirs. She stays asleep, though, her chest moving steadily with her breathing.
Jenna smiles to herself, recalling the evening's festivities and the sheer amount of sugar the child had consumed. She'd been running around all night, singing Christmas carols, dancing, and convincing Ogie to teach her to play the new ukulele he and Dawn had bought for her after taking a lesson on their recent vacation to Hawaii. ("I wanna play for all my friends when I go back to school!" she'd declared excitedly, not caring a bit that all she knew was a couple of chords and random strumming.)
No wonder she was out of it.
"Partied too hard tonight, didn't you?" Jenna murmurs with a chuckle. Then, with another kiss to her daughter's forehead, she whispers, "Love you, little girl."
With that, she reaches for the quilt on Lulu's bed and tucks it more snugly over the girl's shoulders. She clicks off the bedside lamp then and pads out of the room, clicking the door shut behind her.
It takes Jenna all of ten minutes to dig the bag of presents out of the back of her own bedroom closet--which she'd had to strategically cover due to Lulu's love for hide-and-seek--and place them under the Christmas tree. It's the bike, however that presents a challenge. Becky had brought it over earlier and, before Lulu was even aware she was there, moved it to the old used Buick that Jenna had saved up for when bus transportation became too much of a hassle.
Checking in on Lulu once more to be sure she's still asleep, Jenna grabs her coat and shoes and makes her way downstairs, out into the cold. Thankfully, the expected snow is just starting. However, the wind bites at Jenna's cheeks as she unlocks the trunk of the car and lifts the small purple and yellow bike out, along with the box of training wheels.
It's a haul up the stairs to the apartment and another twenty minutes of Jenna spread out on the living room floor with her tool kit, praying Lulu won't wake up while she fights with the extra wheels to figure out how to attach them to the bike. With her mission finally completed, Jenna stands up to admire her handiwork, setting the bicycle with it's giant red bow in front of the three.
It's a spectacle, the first thing Lulu will see when she wakes up and comes running for presents.
In the morning, her daughter will get to enjoy all of her new gifts. They'll spend maybe an hour solving puzzles together, playing, and laughing. Then, they'll make breakfast together--cinnamon rolls and fresh fruit--before getting started on the pecan pie for Christmas dinner with the pie shop crew. Lulu will get to learn how to roll out crust for the first time, and Jenna will let her pick out a recipe for a second pie to go with it.
You really made it, the baker tells herself as she admires her home and it's warmth; a warmth her mother would definitely be proud of.
With a sense of accomplishment, Jenna walks over to the coffee table where a plate of gingerbread cookies is sitting out for "Santa." She nibbles on a cookie and drinks up the accompanying glass of milk--for realistic effect, of course.
She checks the clock one last time to find that it's after midnight and, with a yawn, turns out the light and steps across cold hardwood to her room. Before long, she's in pajamas and crawling into bed.
As she begins to drift off, a sense of peace washes over Jenna. Her heartbeat slows, and she feels a pleasant glow radiating in her chest. She can't tell if it's the holiday, the fact that everything in her life seems to be right, or both, but she relishes in it and allows it to send her into blissful dreaming.