When Mama finally opened her eyes, her lips spread into another smile before she leaned in and kissed Ella on the tip of her nose. They had the same nose—a little wide and pudgy—but as Mama always said, still cute. Ella wanted to ask Mama what she'd wished for because it had taken so very long—it must've been something big—but she didn't ask. Another song was playing now, "Christmas Island," and her mother began singing again. This time, Ella sang along too.
They sang and packed up all the empty boxes, putting them into bins and stacking them against the wall. Tomorrow, Mama would carry them up to the third bedroom where they'd stay until January, and then they'd pack all the Christmas stuff into them again. It seemed like they sang for hours that night, one song after another, after another. All the Christmas songs with all the Christmas joy that Mama loved to fill the house with. It was the best time of Ella's life.
And six months later, after the new year, when Ella was waiting for her wish to come true, it became the worst time of her life.
Bolting up in her bed, Ella breathed heavily, a hand going to her chest in an attempt to still her thumping heart. "It was just a dream," she reminded herself. "Just a silly dream."
But it was the dream that had haunted her for the last nineteen years because it was the first time that Ella had wished upon the Christmas star and that wish hadn't come true. She hadn't gotten that pony she wanted. Instead, her mother had succumbed to complications from lupus, and Ella knew from that moment on that her life would never be the same.
For a few moments she remained still in the bed, taking one steadying breath after another in an attempt to re-acclimate her thoughts to the here and now. Light peeped through the partially closed blinds at her window, and she eventually turned her attention to the nightstand in search of the time. What she found, right next to her digital alarm clock, was the stack of mail she'd brought into the bedroom with her last night but had neglected to open. With an inward groan she stared at the red envelope on top of the small stack. The Christmas card from Ben.
His handwriting was all too familiar—the festive Peanuts-themed stamp in the corner way more jovial than she felt upon seeing it—and her heart had plummeted... then and now. How dare he. Not after all this time. Not after what he'd done.
After being forced to grow up without her mother—accepting the reality that life wasn't always her friend—and finding a career path that gave her a purpose, last year Ella had finally thought she'd found some happiness again. She was in love last Christmas, and that love had opened her heart to the joy of the season, the wonder of this time of year that her mother always talked about. Her first wish since she was that hopeful ten-year-old girl had been for a fairy-tale wedding. On New Year's Day, Ben told her he'd accepted a job in Honduras and would be leaving without her.
Overwhelmed with emotion, she shook her head before bringing her hands up to cover her face. She held back the tears that always threatened to come after the dream and the memories of those thwarted hopes.
Wishes don't come true, she reminded herself. There's no such thing as Christmas magic or a powerful star. No such things at all.
And she was fine with that. Since losing her mother, she'd decided to put away childish things and expectations—namely, Christmas. It was for the best.
Ella flopped back down on the bed. She pulled the blankets up to her neck and closed her eyes tightly, trying to force herself to claim the forty-five minutes she had left to sleep. Moments later, she was still awake and with a heavy sigh, she opened her eyes again.
"Might as well get up and get this day over with," she mumbled and then pushed the blankets away.
An hour and a half later she walked out of her town house wearing a sage-green pantsuit, beige wedge-heeled booties, and an ivory wool coat. With the strap of her leather purse over one shoulder, she fumbled with the keys in her hand until she could press the fob to disengage the automatic locks on her car door. She'd just tossed her purse onto the passenger seat and slid behind the steering wheel when her phone rang. She'd stuffed that into her coat pocket after downing a quick cup of tea and now retrieved it. "Ella Wilson," she answered.
"I can't believe this is really happening! What are we going to do? This was too fast; I haven't had enough time to process and there's so much to be done. How're we ever going to be ready in time and what happens if we're not? I cannot do this alone, Ella. Are you there? Are you taking care of everything?" A very high-pitched, emotionally charged voice chattered in her ear.