“Uncle!” A dark-haired young sprite of a girl came racing down the driveway, pigtails bouncing behind her with every over-enthusiastic step. Mr. Numbers didn’t even break his pace; he swept the girl into his arms with one fluid motion and gave her a solid squeeze. She hugged him back, gripping his strong neck for all she was worth.
“Hey there, Carmen. How’s my favorite niece doing?”
“I’m your only niece!”
“That’s why you’re my favorite.”
The front door Carmen had burst out of remained open; a woman only a year or two younger than Mr. Numbers stood just inside of it. She smiled as he made his way up the driveway, giving him a much gentler embrace designed to show affection without crushing her daughter.
“Glad you could make it, Luke.”
“Come on, Sara. You know I never miss a Christmas when I can help it.” He set the small girl down with some effort then reached into the small suitcase he’d kept gripped in his free hand. “Now then, can someone tell me where the presents go?”
“You can put them under the tree!” Carmen squealed excitedly. “You can’t miss it, the lights are using a new filament I designed that makes them three times brighter!”
“Three times brighter? That is very impressive.”
“Carmen, before we show your uncle the tree, you need to go wash up. We’re going to have lunch soon.”
“Don’t ‘aw’ me, young lady. Clean hands at the table,” Sara reiterated.
“Fiiiine,” Carmen yielded. She sprinted up the stairs to her bathroom, where she would be torn between her inclination to dawdle and her desire to see her uncle.
“That will give us a few minutes,” Sara said once the child-shaped cache of energy had left the room. “Let’s get you settled.” The two walked briskly down the hallway, their shared heritage evident in the way they moved and the general shape of their bodies. Sara opened a door on the right of the hall and ushered her slightly-older brother through it. He set his bag on the bed, but only after removing a few crayon drawings that already littered the top of the comforter.
“So, how is she doing?” Mr. Numbers flipped through the papers, admiring his niece’s handiwork. She wasn’t much of an artist, but he did like the sketch of a pony jumping over a differential equation.
“Better,” Sara replied, moving some clothes she’d meant to put away before he arrived. “It’s still hard on her with her father on the road for work so much. I think she’s less lonely since she got into her new courses. Some of the tenured professors there are able to speak on her level, which seems to make her feel a lot more included.”
Mr. Numbers folded the drawing and slid it into the breast pocket of his jacket. “She’s doing better than I did at her age.”
“That’s not a terribly high bar to make it over,” Sara said with a sly look. From anyone else it would have been an insult; from his sister it was endearing sass.
“Granted. Has she had any luck making friends her own age?”
“Not really. She gets along fine when they’re talking about cartoons and games, but sooner or later she’ll reference the gravitational equation during a round of jump rope and then she’s back on the outside.”
“I’ll talk to her. If nothing else I can take her to an ice show or something while I’m here. Carmen deserves to be a kid.”
“She’ll love that.” Sara hesitated a moment, then continued. “You know, Luke, when we were kids I always thought you were full of it every time you talked about how hard it was to be different.”
“You thought I was just being a whiner.”
“I did. I couldn’t fathom how having a brain like yours was anything but a blessing. Now, raising Carmen and seeing her always trying so hard to find a place where she belongs, I get what you meant. I’m sorry I wasn’t a little more understanding back then.”
“Sara, it was absurd for me to expect you to understand. You had no frame of reference, no way to comprehend what I was talking about,” Mr. Numbers reassured her. “I’m just glad Carmen at least has a mother who can make her feel loved and accepted. Hopefully that will keep her from ending up like me.”
“Oh yes, heaven forbid she end up like her uncle, the wildly successful corporate accounts analyst,” Sara said. “Come on, let’s go put your presents under the tree. You and I both know if Carmen so much as hears them slide in the box she’ll deduce what’s inside.”
Mr. Numbers pulled several brightly colored boxes from his suitcase and followed his sister back down the hallway.
* * *
There was a thick layer of snow on top of the steel roof that protected the seemingly abandoned concrete building. Occasionally a sheet of frosty white precipitation would slide onto the ground with a muffled thump. Had there been any passers-by, they might have assumed the interior to be water-logged and decrepit. They would have, at the very best, presumed it to be cold and barren as the chill soaked through the concrete walls. They would certainly never have imagined that Christmas lights glowed along the doorways or that the pleasant smell of cooking turkey permeated through its halls.
Persephone was in a small room that had once been an office when this place had been functional. Now they’d stuffed it with free weights and a boxing bag to create a makeshift gym. It wasn’t much compared to the facilities she’d left behind, but it served its purpose. A series of quick blows to the bag made echoing thuds throughout the room. Persephone loved that sound; it brought a multitude of memories flooding back every time.
“You should clean up. We’re going to eat soon.” Persephone didn’t have to turn; she knew His voice by heart. She turned anyway. He stood in the open doorway, sporting the usual unflappable smile. A few flakes of snow trickled out of His hair, remnants of His trip earlier in the day.
“I’m fine. I’ll eat when I finish up.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s Christmas, this is a time for being with family.”
“None of us are related,” Persephone quipped, turning her attention back to the bag.
“You say that like it matters.”
“Of course it matters. Isn’t that the basis of family?” Persephone could feel Him looking at her without turning her head. No, it was worse than that; she could feel Him looking through her. A gentle hand settled on her shoulder and it was all she could do not show any reaction.
“Blood means nothing more than similar genetic markers,” He said, His voice both firm and calming at once. “Family is who you care about, and I can assure every person at that table cares a great deal about you.”
Persephone closed her eyes. She could have called bullshit on anyone else for dropping a line like that, but not Him. It wasn’t just that He genuinely believed it, it wasn’t even that He made other people around Him desire to believe it. It was that He made it true. He didn’t merely see the world the way He wanted it to be, He actually changed the world by moving through it. All of His power, and it was still this mundane yet impossible ability that mesmerized Persephone more than any other. It was why she’d chosen Him to believe in after her... incident, it was why she’d thrown away her entire career to help Him.
“Geez, you’re corny,” she said, eyes still firmly shut. “Let me shower and I’ll come join you guys.”
“We’ll wait for you,” He assured her, releasing her shoulder with one last comforting squeeze.