They'd kicked me out of the lab over the holiday, so I had to go home. Only it wasn't home, really—just a hole-in-the-wall studio apartment on the south side of Chicago. Home was…I didn't even know anymore.
Still, what did I have to complain about? I had made it, hadn't I? After double majoring in violin performance and nuclear physics at the University of Chicago, I was now a highly favored research assistant at Argonne National Laboratory, on the fast track to becoming a lab director.
It was all I'd ever wanted, right? It was all anyone ever had wanted for me—what I was born to do. Everyone said so. But lately I'd had my doubts.
It seemed like all the dreams of young Jennifer Whittaker-Dowd had come true. But at what expense? I had alienated my family and friends—everyone I used to care about. Now, all I had outside the lab were the four blank walls of my tiny apartment.
I stared out the window at the dingy piles of snow outside. I knew it would all be melted by Christmas. That was the way it always worked around here.
The door buzzer sounded, and I ignored it. That was always happening around the holidays—visitors pushing the wrong buttons in their excitement over gathering with friends and family. It was never really for me.
Suddenly, I heard a tap on kitchen window. Was I hearing things? There it was again. I wasn't hearing things. Making my way to the kitchen, I saw the silhouette of a man standing on the fire escape outside the window.
I was about to scream when I realized the face peering in my window was one I recognized.
"Monty?! What are you doing here?"
I cracked the window open.
"It's good to see you, too," he chuckled. "Are you going to let me in, or are you just going to stand there staring at me?"
"Oh, uh, yeah, sure…" I opened the window all the way and pulled out the screen. "I'm still stuck on why my brother is climbing through my window on Thanksgiving Day."
"You didn't answer the door, so… I mean, you didn't think I was going to give up so easily did you?"
"Okay, but that doesn't explain why you're here in the first place. Mom asked you to come check in on me, didn't she?"
"That doesn't matter. I would have come anyway. We haven't seen or heard from you in months. Besides, I was already in the neighborhood for work and decided I'd just drop in to spend Thanksgiving with my sister. So…" He cast an amused glance at the pajamas and slippers I was wearing. "What are your plans for the day?"
"I, uh, don't really have any."
"Perfect! Then we'll cook Thanksgiving dinner together."
Wasting no time, he flung open the refrigerator door.
"There's not much in there," I cautioned.
"You aren't kidding! Do you even eat anymore?"
"Sorry, I wasn't really expecting company."
"Really, Jen—pizza rolls?" he questioned, peering into the freezer. "You live in the city with the best pizza in the world, and you…" I shot him a look that told him I was not amused. "Never mind. There's a 7-Eleven down the street. I'm going to go scrounge us up something real to have for Thanksgiving dinner."
Before I knew it, he was on his way out my front door in that Monty Whittaker whirlwind of reckless energy I knew so well.
"Do me a favor and answer the door when I come back, though, will ya?" he hollered over his shoulder as he dashed down the stairs.
He was back in 20 minutes with an armload of edibles, which he proudly displayed on the kitchen table.
I don't know what kind of wizardry he concocted, but he managed to take the pathetic spread of gas station chicken wings, boxed stuffing mix, instant mashed potatoes and gravy, wilted bag salad, and day-old apple fritters and make it all taste like five-star cuisine.
"Well, shall I say grace?" he asked as we sat down before our make-shift feast.
I felt like a little kid, squinting through half-closed eyelids while he prayed a blessing over the meal. I hadn't thought about God in a long time. It was strange to hear my brother speaking so naturally to Him, like he was talking to his best friend.
As we cleaned up the dishes after stuffing ourselves, my brother's eyes settled on the single element of décor in my matchbox-sized apartment. It was a simply-framed photo of the three of us—Mom, Monty, and me—taken the Thanksgiving before. That was the last time the three of us had been together. And that had been the day everything went wrong with Mom.
"What happened between you two, Jen?"
"I don't know—we'd just become…distant. I don't know why. And then we just blew up at each other. I don't even remember what it was we fought about. We just suddenly couldn't stand to be in the same room with each other. I miss her, Monty."
"She misses you, too, you know."
There was silence for a few moments, then, "Do ever play anymore?" he asked, nodding at the dusty violin case that sat in the corner of the room.
I grunted. "Not since I flunked my audition with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra."
"That's a shame." He looked genuinely disappointed. "Would you play something for me now?"
I knew it was useless to protest. My brother was the only person I knew who was more strong-willed that I was. Before I could think about what to play, the familiar strains of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" came floating from the long-silent strings. Why was I playing that song?
Then I remembered all those years ago when I'd been selected to play the solo in that piece as a guest performer in the Odyssey Youth Symphony's holiday concert. A couple of the orchestra members nearly lost their minds over it and said some pretty nasty things to me. Monty stood up for me, though. Just like he always did.
And suddenly it struck me that, in spite of all the pressure I had always put on myself to perform, none of that had ever mattered to Monty. He was always there for me no matter what.
I stopped abruptly.
"Thank you, Monty."
"For always having my back. For not caring whether I'm first chair or not. For climbing in my window to visit me for Thanksgiving dinner. For being…you."
"Aw, come on, Jen. I'm your brother. It's what I do."
Neither of us had ever been very good with emotions. So I just began playing again, and Monty hummed along.
We sat around laughing and talking for hours after that, just like old times. I'd forgotten how much I missed that.
Finally, Monty stood up and said, "Well, I have some reports to go over before, uh…an inspection I have to do tomorrow."
I laughed lightly. "Yeah, sure you do… Hey, can I ask you a question?" I didn't wait for him to answer. "You're not a food inspector, are you?"
"Leave it to my sister, the smart one, to figure it out." He shrugged. "I guess you could say I've become involved in the, uh, 'family business.'"
I nodded. "I always knew you'd end up following in Grandpa and Uncle Jason's footsteps."
"Speaking of which—" he interrupted before I could speculate further. "We'll be in Odyssey with Grandpa and Jason for Christmas in a few weeks. You ought to come."
"Maybe I will."
He wrapped me up in a big bear hug, just like he used to.
"And call mom, will ya?"
I nodded, wiping at a wayward tear that suddenly came trickling down my face.
"Hey now, none of that!"
He gave me one last hug, then, just as suddenly as he had come, he was gone.
As I watched him strolling away down the sidewalk, he turned in the direction of my window to wave a final goodbye. I waved back, thankful for such an incorrigible, headstrong brother who never gave up on me. Spending time with him had helped me remember how much I really did have to be thankful for.
Once he was out of sight, I picked up my phone and scrolled through the contacts until I settled on Mom's number. I hesitated for a moment, then tapped the green call button.
"Hey Mom, it's Jenny. I, uh… just wanted to call and wish you a happy Thanksgiving."