Everyone, Nelia had decided, had to have one relative they dreaded visiting, especially during the holidays.
In a family as wide, varied, and spread-out as Nelia’s, she wasn’t surprised that she had more than one – two aunts and an uncle, to be specific – that she really wanted nothing to do with. And she wasn’t surprised that Fate dictated she see all of them at least fourteen times a year.
The Friday before Christmas was, traditionally, what her mother called Visiting the Aunty Aunts time. The “Aunty Aunts” were four of her father’s aunts who lived together, along with two husbands and three ailing Chihuahuas, in a giant farmhouse that had once belonged to their parents. Rumor had it that Aunt Edna and Aunt Elspeth had never left the house and its surrounding property at all, not once in their ninety-or-so years of life.
They must, Nelia had decided, get the yarn trucked in. Every year, for every niece and nephew they had, Edna and Elspeth knit sweaters and mittens of thick, itchy wool in thick, complex patterns. The sweaters could stop a bullet or a hailstorm, if you could stand to put them on (they poked through up to three layers of under-shirt, and who could stand wearing three undershirts under a sweater a half-inch thick on its own?), and were the warmest pieces of clothing Nelia had ever owned. Only shrinking them “accidentally” in the wash got rid of them, and family tradition demanded they all Must Be Worn at least once a year around the Aunties.
She wriggled into last year’s baby-blue version, the cables making elaborate wave designs up the torso and seeming, in what had to be an accident, to wrap around and frame her small breasts. “Ready, Mom,” she sighed resignedly. “Keep the AC on in the car?”
“Of course, honey.” Mom was wearing her own pastel-pink version, hers covered in tiny flowers; Nelia’s brother Cam was wearing one in butter-yellow with train tracks on it and just as squirmy.
“Dearies.” Edna and Ethel greeted them with gentle hugs and tissue-paper cheek kisses. “You always look so warm and snugglie in our sweaters. It makes me sad,” Edna added, “that we didn’t knit this year.”
“Didn’t knit?” Cam, Nelia thought, looked almost disappointed. What was wrong with him?
“No, no, honey. We’re getting too old for all that knitting, so we saved it for the babies this year. Besides, if we’re supposed to be fairy godparents, we should, once in your lives, give you something you’ll use.”
“Fairy…” The look on Mom’s face stopped Nelia dead. Mom wasn’t amused, or hopeful, or worried about senility. She was horrified. “Aunt Edna,” Nelia tried carefully. “What do you mean?”
“She means,” Aunt Elspeth picked up, “that someone has to look after you kids, and the sweaters only do so much. So this year, well, we tatted up something different. This is for you, Dorotea.” She handed Nelia’s mother a small box. “With this, you will always know where your children are, and if they are all right.”
Let her be kidding. Let her be kidding. The last thing Nelia wanted was for her mother to know where she was all the time.
Aunt Edna picked up where Elspeth had left off. “For you, Cambrian,” she handed him another small box. “A place to store and order all your plans, so that you don’t forget them.”
Her little brother clutched the box to his chest with a wicked grin. “Thanks, Aunts Elspeth-Edna!” Nelia began to wonder what he was up to, that he needed something like that.
“And for you, Cornelia.” Elspeth handed over a third box. “That you always know when people wish you ill.”
Looking at the small box with a nervous and sinking heart (and the sudden feeling that Cam was plotting against her), Nelia suddenly wished for another sweater.