Multi-colored lights twinkled around the room, up the banister, around the tree, and along the curtain rod of the living room. Savory scents combined in the kitchen while a ham cooked in the oven. Family members from near and far mingled while they snacked on pigs in a blanket.
At the center of the controlled chaos of the kitchen was Isadora, who gave instructions to her younger siblings on when dishes would go into the oven and when to take them to the dining room and living room. Isadora lived with her wife in their four-bedroom house. They had no kids by choice, and their decision to buy a spacious house confused many, but Isadora had always loved hosting all of her family members for the holidays. It had been an annual tradition for fifteen years. Occasionally one of her siblings hosted, but without fail, everyone would complain that they should go back to Isadora’s house next year.
However, this Christmas Eve, their family was short one regular.
Her chair, a recliner reserved for her during the holidays, was empty.
“Isadora, do you need any help?” her father asked, shuffling into the kitchen.
“Dad, you know Izzy never wants more hands in the kitchen than she needs,” said John, her brother, with a grin as he recalled previous years.
Their father had deep set eyes and wrinkles all throughout his brow. His fingers were loosely interlaced around one another while he absentmindedly rubbed a knuckle with his thumb. His gaze was flickering all around the kitchen, looking for anything that might need to be moved to another room.
Beth, the other sibling, squeezed her way past him as she returned to the kitchen for her next task. “Hey, you’re supposed to be resting and having fun out there with the grandkids.”
Including Isadora’s wife, Yvette, five people were now inside the kitchen. The kitchen wasn’t small, but everyone was already zipping around to finish dinner preparations, and with cross-traffic, nobody wanted their well-meaning father to be blocking a path.
But he looked so lost, staring at his children keeping busy. With nothing to do, his mind was wandering.
“Well…what did your mother used to help out with?” he asked.
Everyone froze. Isadora’s knife hovered listlessly in the air above the vegetables on her cutting board. John glanced at his feet. Beth and Yvette both bit their lips.
After a deep breath, Isadora calmly set down the knife and handed her father a bowl. “She always made the salad for us. It was the easiest on her hands. Everything you need is in the fridge.”
He nodded quietly and took what he needed as the other siblings explained what to do. The man had never set foot in a kitchen before. When his kids were young, he spent the early part of Christmas Eve with his brothers, while his wife and her sisters worked on the food. Even as they had gotten older and all three of the kids had started helping out in the kitchen, he had always stayed out, as if banishing himself from that sort of work.
Dinner was polite, cordial—empty. There was lots of food to go around, which everyone consumed, but all of the family members were merely going through the motions of tradition. Gravy glistened in its small pot, the savory scent of ham filled the house, and even their father’s first attempt at salad went fairly well. Despite the supposedly jovial feast, conversation was limited. Isadora poked at her mashed potatoes with her fork, spinning them in circles. Her father, sitting at the head of the table, kept turning his gaze toward the chair to his right. It was empty, but he had decorated it with a Christmas stocking embroidered with the name Valerie.
The stocking was empty, too. Isadora understood why it was empty, but it was still odd to see it like that.
After gift exchanges and cleanup from dinner, the extended family departed for the night, wishing everyone a merry Christmas. Isadora forced her mouth to turn upward in a smile for them; sure, some of them hadn’t spoken to her mother for years until the sudden illness struck, but they were hurting, too. As an adult, she could handle being upset with them and empathizing with them at the same time, or at least she could manage to pretend.
Isadora’s siblings, their partners and children, and her father were spending the night. With the bedrooms and air mattresses set up, they were all winding down the night in their own ways. Isadora sat on the couch with a small glass of whiskey, watching John and Yvette at the table, having just finished a chess match. John’s wife was in the basement getting the kids tucked into bed. Beth and her husband were wrapping up the cleaning of the kitchen for Isadora. Their father was elsewhere. No one had seen him recently, and his children were too busy trying to keep themselves afloat to cast a net out to him if he wasn’t willing to grab onto it.
Things had not been easy since Isadora’s mother had passed. Her father had crumpled, and the surprise had shocked her siblings to their core. This had left Isadora handling the funeral and the frustrating process of needling her father to help her access her mother’s accounts. Her father had never been the sort of person to stay on top of paperwork.
Isadora had led the cutthroat decluttering of her mother’s belongings only a month and a half after her death. They were just going to collect dust, and she couldn’t understand her father’s reluctance to go through them. Her mother was gone. She was never coming back. Her things were not her.
Throughout all of it, Yvette had been Isadora’s pillar, shielding Isadora from much of her family’s anger over her moving too fast for them. Her aunt had wanted several things belonging to Valerie, but Isadora’s mother had left her siblings nothing in her will. Then, in his grief, Isadora’s father accused his daughter of trying to throw away her mother. Even Isadora’s siblings expressed concern over whether she was taking things too impersonally.
Unknown to all but Yvette was that Isadora had kept one thing for herself—her mother’s chess set, which Isadora had moved to a shelf in her closet. At first, she hadn’t understood why she took it.
“And this one is the queen, Izzy. She’s the strongest piece in the game, able to move in all directions. She’ll open strategies for you and save you from danger. Keep her safe, and she’ll keep you safe.
“When everything feels hopeless, remember: Don’t be afraid to act like a queen.”
John sulked at Yvette, who had put his king in checkmate. “No fair. You get to practice with one of the chess queens of our family all the time. You’ve gotten so good so quickly,” he said with a groan.
Yvette smirked. “You lost because you were predictable.”
He turned to his sister. “Hey, Izzy, you sure you don’t wanna teach the rest of us?”
Isadora crossed her legs and fixed her brother a long stare. “You had plenty of opportunities to learn from Mom. It’s not my fault I’m the only one who took the time to study the game with her.”
Their mother had never participated in competitions, but Isadora was certain that she was the best chess player she’d ever come across. It took ten years of playing for Isadora to finally best her mother when they were both playing without holding back. Isadora didn’t consider herself quite as skilled, but playing against her mother had made her better than most.
But neither of them had ever approached their games as a fierce competition. They typically played at night after dinners, keeping themselves warm with cups of decaf coffee. They moved at a slow pace and chatted about life. To anyone who didn’t know them, it probably looked like they weren’t taking the game seriously, but they were—it’s just that the game was a motivator to get them both to slow down long enough to talk.
Beth emerged from the kitchen. “Everything’s cleaned up and put away. Want me to make breakfast tomorrow?”
“Sure, thanks,” Isadora replied. She rubbed her temple. “I’m feeling pretty tired. I think I’m gonna head to bed now.”
“I’ll be there soon,” Yvette said. Isadora knew her wife was often a night owl and could stay up late chatting with John, but underneath Yvette’s words were an understanding of I know how upset you are, and I don’t want you going to bed alone.
Isadora smiled. “Thanks. No need to hurry.”
With a good night from her family, she walked into her bedroom. The day couldn’t be over soon enough. This Christmas was the first she regretted hosting family. All she had wanted to do all day was lie in bed, but she was Isadora—the person in her family who kept everyone together. If something had to be done, she was the one who tackled it without complaints.
That’s why when she walked into her bathroom and saw her father sitting on top of the closed toilet lid with his head in his hands, she just sighed and sat in front of him.
When he didn’t acknowledge her presence, she said, “Dad.” Then with more force, “Dad, it’s not going to be any easier on yourself if you sit alone in the bathroom—my bathroom, by the way. There’s a guest bathroom in the hallway.”
Her father sharply breathed in. Isadora knew this feeling; it was how she acted whenever she dropped her walls around Yvette. She watched her father suck in air through his lips and his front teeth, breathing in more than he was exhaling until he turned away and grabbed a tissue from the box next to him on the counter. He wiped his eyes and then blew his nose. Isadora looked away.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I…” He sniffled and took a moment to gather his thoughts. “I didn’t know Christmas could hurt this much. Every time I think I see her out of the corner of my eye, I go to look at her, and…she’s not there.”
“Dad… Mom is never coming back.” Isadora was firm, but she kept her voice as soft as she could for his sake. “She’s dead. No amount of tears will change the fact that she’s not looking over us. The sooner we all learn to deal with her being dead, the sooner we can all move forward.”
Then, partially to herself, Isadora added, “She wouldn’t want us to be stuck in one place.”
Her father sniffled once more and threw away the used tissue. As he went to stand, Isadora helped him to his unsteady feet.
“Let’s get you to bed, now,” she said, helping him out of the bathroom and through her bedroom toward the hallway.
He looked around to the corner of the master bedroom until his eyes settled on a small table and chairs by a window.
Isadora couldn’t help stopping in her tracks. Her father’s mouth was agape. She quickly turned around to the corner, but there was no one sitting at the table. It was empty, because of course it was. It was just the two of them in the bedroom, and everyone else was in the living room or basement.
“All right. Let’s go,” she urged, beginning to walk him into one of the spare bedrooms. There was an air mattress on the floor for John and his wife, which she carefully navigated around.
“There are extra towels in the guest room if you want to shower before bed. I’ll tell John and Sharon to go to bed soon so that they don’t wake you.”
Her father sat on the edge of the bed, staring absent-mindedly at the floor. Isadora was already headed for the door when he suddenly said, “You know, more than any of your other siblings, you remind me so much of your mother. Calm, frustrating, and somehow right nearly all of the time.”
Isadora smiled. “Nearly?”
But her father did not smile back. “Yes. Nearly, but not always.”
Sensing he had no more to say, Isadora wished him good night and closed the door. Once she let John know to go to bed soon, she and Yvette returned to their bedroom. Beth turned off the living room lights and went to the smaller spare guest room with her husband.
As Yvette closed the bedroom door, Isadora felt the tears coming. She leaned against the bed frame and buried her face in the covers. Yvette joined her on the bed and rubbed her back.
“You made it through today,” she said quietly.
“Yeah. Still have Christmas Day to survive, though.”
“Do you want to keep hosting these? We could always take next year off. We could go to my family’s.”
Yvette gently raised Isadora’s face with the light touch of a finger on her chin. “You don’t need to take it all on by yourself.” Then she went to their closet and grabbed the old chess set that only she and Isadora knew was there. “Here, look.”
She set it on the small table by the window and arranged the pieces on the board.
“You think you’re this queen piece,” Yvette began. “The queen can do a lot by herself, but it’s much smarter if you use all of your other pieces together with her, from the small but many pawns to the reliable knights, castles, and bishops. Even the king can help bring about a checkmate.”
Yvette held the white queen out to Isadora, who took it and turned it over against her fingers. She was quiet while she felt its ridges and the top of the small crown. So much power in one piece; it felt like every play depended on her.
And yet a player starts with fifteen other pieces.
“You’re right,” Isadora admitted. “But I can’t be the queen. You’re just as wonderful and important as me, so there can’t be only one of us as the strongest piece on the same team.”
Yvette laughed. “We’re not chess pieces, dear.”
Isadora stifled a giggle. “Right. I think I just had too much to drink tonight. Let’s go to sleep. It’s nearly Christmas.”
Yvette held her close. “One more day, and then you don’t have to worry about your family for a little while.”
Isadora hugged her tighter. “You know I will.”
“As long as you know you’re not alone in this.”
The house was silent as all its inhabitants for the night settled into bed, allowing themselves to slip from grief into peaceful sleep.
Isadora was the last to wake the next morning. When she opened her eyes at the sound of a pan dropping in the kitchen, she slowly sat up. It was the first Christmas without her. It was the first of many Christmas Days without her.
It felt weird now, but there would come a time when she’d be able to look back on years past and not feel like crying. Everything was going to be all right eventually. She wasn’t alone.
She walked past the table where the chess pieces were still set up for a game to her dresser to change out of her pajamas. She could hear her siblings teasing each other as John had inevitably tried to flip the pancakes mid-air without a spatula again.
As she went toward the bed to neaten the sheets and covers, her eyes noticed something off about the chess board. One of the white pawns had been moved forward two spaces.
“…Mom? Are you there?” Isadora cautiously asked the air. When she heard nothing in return, she could only laugh at herself. Of course she didn’t hear anything but the ruckus caused by John and Beth’s kitchen activities.
Isadora moved a black pawn forward two spaces to meet the white pawn. She smiled to herself and then joined the rest of her family in the kitchen, missing the slow movement of a white knight advancing.