The mall was packed full with frantic Christmas shoppers and lazy students adamant to do anything but homework. The group of five girls had slowly meandered through the shops, chit-chatting about nothing in particular as they walked. Morgan and Liz tried on clothes, but none of the older girls did. In fact, none of the older girls bought anything at all, which Liz thought was a little weird, since they were the ones who had wanted to come to the mall. Instead, they kept the conversation going, asking questions about Liz and Morgan. What colleges they were looking at. How their senior classes were going. What they liked to do for fun.
Liz may have felt weird about the questions for a moment, but she got over it quickly. She was mostly just flattered at the attention.
Later in the afternoon, the five girls settled down for a snack in the food court. Sandra, Delia, and Jackie grabbed small salads while Morgan and Liz settled for ice cream sundaes. As the group sat down at a table, the three Children of the Rose members bowed their heads. Liz and Morgan exchanged a glance over the table, shrugged at each other, and bowed their heads as well.
As Liz stared at the table, she could hear a conversation as a couple people passed them.
“I think those are some of those crazy Children of the Rose people. I live across the street from their little village and church,” a guy’s voice said.
“How can you tell?” asked a girl.
“They’re wearing the same rings the members who go to my school wear. They’re all crazy, I swear.”
Liz felt Jackie shift next to her and opened an eye. The other girls were raising their heads and beginning to eat their salads. Liz noticed Morgan still had her head down. She kicked the other girl under the table.
“Did you hear that conversation?” Liz asked.
The three older girls still stared at their salads.
“They called you crazy! Doesn’t that bother you?”
Delia raised her eyes to meet Liz’s. “We heard,” she said. “People call us crazy all the time. They’re stereotyping. Our beliefs scare them. It doesn’t bother us, though. We’re not hurting anyone and God doesn’t think we’re crazy. That’s what’s important.”
Liz was amazed. This strong belief—not caring what others said—that was something she wished she had.
“I’ve an idea!” Sandra cried, causing the other four to jump. “Morgan, Elizabeth, you should come to the Christmas week services! I mean, sure, it’s not for another couple weeks, but it’s a great time. You should really come if you’re interested in our church.”
“Christmas week?” Morgan asked.
Delia smiled. “Yeah. We have services and activities all week leading up to Christmas Eve, then a midnight service on Christmas Eve, and a special activity on Christmas evening.”
Morgan and Liz looked at each other again, then nodded.
“Sure, that sounds fun,” Liz said, shrugging.
“You can count me in,” Morgan agreed.
Sandra’s smile got even wider. “Oh, good!” she cried.
“I’m so glad,” Delia said, also smiling.
“You won’t be disappointed, trust me,” Jackie toned in. Liz furrowed her eyebrows. She noticed her sister didn’t sound quite as enthusiastic as the other two, almost like she was just saying what she had to say. But a second later the conversation had shifted away from Christmas week and the oddity went forgotten.
Somehow, Liz has found herself sitting on the family room couch, forced into family bonding time. It’s the last place she wants to be. Instead of making eye contact with any of her siblings or their spouses or the young children now running around the place, she spins a small silver ring around her right pinkie finger. She watches as the small green gem orbits the knuckle. Nervous habit.
Jackie, sitting next to Liz, notices this ring-spinning and grasps Liz’s hand to make her stop. Liz looks up at her sister and gives her a sad smile. Jackie wears an identical ring on her own pinkie, but at least she’s not spinning it.
Without preamble, Jackie reaches down to a bag sitting at her feet and pulls out a small photo album. Liz’s eyes widen and she looks at the album warily. This can’t be good, not if this is what she thinks it is.
“What the hell is that?” Eva snaps.
“Eva, please,” their mother sighs.
“Oh, stop. I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Do you always have to argue about everything?” Andi asks.
The bickering starts, but Jackie speaks over her siblings. “I found this in a box at my house. I thought you might be interested in seeing it, Liz.”
As Liz reaches out to take the photo album with shaking hands, the rest of the family falls into silence. The only sound is of the kids shrieking in the next room. Sara, who’s two, isn’t with her cousins. She’s napping, where Liz knows she’s safe.
Safer than Liz is right now, that is.
She opens the album under the watchful eyes of her family and tries to ignore them. Eric squeezes her shoulder gently, trying to stop her shaking. It doesn’t work.
The first picture Liz opens to is of five smiling teenage girls standing in front of a Christmas tree. The three on the edges wear light green scarves over their hair. The two in the middle, smiling the widest, have black and white scarves. It’s the middle girl with the light brown hair that Liz focuses on immediately.
She can’t help but notice that her eyes look so much less haunted in the picture than they have felt in years.