Citrus, thyme, and basil scents wafted from the kitchen. Angela wriggled on her mother’s lap to grab a handful of the umber tablecloth.
“No, no, babygirl.” Amber scooted back from the table’s edge and drew her child close. She raised her chin and yelled over the clattering sounds in the adjacent room. “You sure I can’t help you with something, Mrs. Standover?”
“It’s Meg. I’ve got it, but thanks for the offer.” The hostess emerged from the kitchen bearing an oblong platter. She blew a stray wisp of gray hair from her eyes and set the steaming plate of sliced turkey breast in the center of the table. “Help yourself. I’ll be right back with the sides.”
Dusty brown and gold leaves nested around a plastic jack-o-lantern centerpiece. Bare ends of the wiry vine jutted into the corner of the pumpkin’s faded grin. Beyond the makeshift decorations, a sole place setting lay on the other side of the table. Wrinkles stretched across the cloth toward five empty chairs.
“Dat!” Angela pointed at the bowl of mashed potatoes as Meg laid it beside the turkey.
“She must be hungry.” Adding a dish of can-shaped cranberry sauce to the table, she wiped her hands on her tattered apron. “Really, go ahead and start.”
“Aren’t you expecting anyone else?”
Meg hesitated. “Edward is finishing up a project at the office. Quiet there today, he said. Family’s at my sister’s, but we …”
Amber bit the inside of her lip. “I’m sorry. It’s–”
“No, please. Don’t say you’re sorry.”
An acrid odor drifted into the air.
Meg gasped. She spun and raced into the kitchen. “The rolls!”
Amber rose, hoisting Babygirl onto her hip, and followed her. The gaping oven spewed thick, ashy breath. Smoke poured across the room to blanket the ceiling. An alarm squealed.
Angela clapped her hands over her ears.
A dark cloud veiled Meg’s face as she whisked a cookie sheet toward the back door. “Can you get the handle?”
Amber opened the French doors and carried Babygirl onto the back patio.
“No!” Angela shouted at the house. “Be ki-yet!”
“Shh. I know.” Amber kissed her round, petal-soft cheek and swayed the baby on her hip.
“Ruined.” Meg tromped across the dead, weedy lawn and slung the charred bread into a brick-rimmed fire pit. With a clang, she slammed the cookie sheet onto the grate covering the pit. She raised her voice above the sound of the alarm. “It’s all ruined!”
“No, the turkey looked perfect.” Amber approached. After shifting the baby, she patted Meg’s shoulder. “No one really cares about the rolls, anyway. It’ll be fine.”
“But it won’t. Nothing will ever be fine. She’s gone.” Hair stuck to her blotched, tear-streaked cheeks. “My perfect angel is never coming home again.”
“I–I–” She blinked back the threat of her own flood of sorrow. “Maybe we should go. I don’t want to intrude.”
Plump fingers spread wide, Angela kissed her own hand and pressed it onto Meg’s cheek. She then patted her mommy’s face with another kiss.
“What a sweet girl. That’s one reason I invited you.” She dried her face with her sleeve. “You’re not intruding at all. But, I don’t want you to stay if it’s uncomfortable.”
The alarm halted. Angela clapped. “Good job!”
They ambled into the house. “I’ll help open windows. Clear the air.”
The doorbell rang.
Meg waved her to follow. “How about helping me start with the front door? Maybe a cute baby will spare me from a bad tempered lecture from the fire department.”
“Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality … Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:13, 15-16).