Meg slid the scissor edge along the packing tape and popped the seals free. As she unfolded the boxtop flaps, dust rose to dance where smoke once flowed through the air.
“See it!” Angela wriggled her fingers toward the crinkle of packing tissue as Mrs. Standover drew out the long-latent gift.
“Is there a note?” Amber put a spoon in her baby’s hand, as a distraction.
Babygirl dropped the spoon on the table and squirmed, reaching for the the shimmering box as Meg lifted it from the package. The gold-embossed image of a luminary bag adorned the front.
Meg embraced the box. “It doesn’t need one.” She bit her tear-dripping lip. Flashed her gaze up at the dusty popcorn ceiling. “My angel-girl … so wise, so big for your tiny little frame. How did you know?”
Amber handed her a napkin. “Feel like talking about it?”
She accepted the tissue substitute, streaking her face with its fuzzy residue. “Her last hours, I just squeezed her icy hands. So limp and bony, all the life had drained out and left them blue. I held onto them anyway. I had to hold onto something while I strained to hear the fading wheeze of her breath. No amount of begging could keep her beside me.
“‘I can’t do this,’ I told her.
“Her chest rose slowly as she drew in enough breath to answer me. ‘Remember telling me I had to go through what hurts in order to heal? You have to do that now, Momma.’
“‘I don’t want this day. Or any beyond it where you aren’t there.’ Despite having sworn myself to wait until she didn’t see it, I cried.
“When I apologized, she said, ‘So tired of that word. Don’t be sorry. Live. Care. Do good things like …’ She had to catch her breath, and I was feeling sorry in spite of her words. In her wheezing was something about ‘together,’ but I didn’t want to ask her to repeat it. My angel’s lungs rose less and less each moment.
“I sobbed again. Tried to stifle it, but stopped a syllable short of an apology. I leaned over and kissed her forehead. As I drew back to look at her face, her lashes fluttered. I mumbled to myself, ‘I don’t know what to do.’
“I almost jumped at the sound of her weak, croak. I hadn’t expected her to respond at all. What she said … that’s what’s got my hair standing on end right now.
“‘It’ll come to you,’ she said. ‘Already sent it.'”
Amber’s tongue burned dry, alerting her to the extended gape of her mouth. She covered it with her hand. Gasped a pasty, rasping reference to God.
Babygirl tugged her mom’s earlobe. “Door!”
The chime rang a third time. Both women blinked out of their stupor and headed to the foyer.
Meg opened the front door. “Oh, Chuck. Did the smoke interrupt your meal today?”
Wearing a cardigan, the neighbor scuffed his loafers on the stoop and rubbed his hands together. “No, but I do smell a little tinge of it now that you mention it. Did you have a fire?”
“Down!” Babygirl shoved Amber’s arm.
She bounced sideways to appease her. On the first sway, she caught sight of a man approaching in his bathrobe and slippers. “Is that Gerald?”
Chuck glanced back as several other neighbors filed in behind him on the walkway. “Yep. There’ll be a few more yet, I suppose.”
“What’s this about?” Mrs. Standover cocked her head. “Look, I know the lawn needs work, but–“
“No, no.” Chuck raised a palm. “You’ve got it all wrong. This isn’t about your lawn, or smoke, or any other complaint.”
“We made a promise,” Gerald said.
“To whom?” Meg rose on her tiptoes, scanning the crowded yard. She teetered off balance a bit. Laid her now-trembling hands on her cheeks. “Angela, of course.”
“You okay?” Amber sidled closer and laid a hand on her shoulder.
“She made us promise to come see you at twelve-thirty today.” Chuck shrugged. “Said you would need us to help you with something.”
“And I thought it was just a gift for her father and me …”
Amber smiled and shared a gaze with her hostess. “Wise, and then some. Your tiny little girl sent dreams to live in a future she couldn’t reach.”
Meg cleared her throat and addressed the neighbors. “I’ll need more luminary bags in order to cover the neighborhood. And if any of you are up for the task, we will have a lot of work to do beyond the Christmas lights. Something big is starting here today. Angela wanted her heart to live on through us.”
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. … These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:1-3, 39-40).