Three days was a tortuous amount of time to wait for her next surprise, but she’d been very busy while she waited. Winnie had tried unsuccessfully to convince Joel’s mom to tell her the surprise, but she’d held firm. Their time together had been otherwise productive. Lynnette was learning to cook for Winnie, learning what to say and what not to say, learning how to help her transition back to the real world, because it was going to take time and a team effort.
The plan was to have Winnie come visit the Anderson’s home a couple times for one afternoon, have dinner with the family, and then immediately bring Winnie back to the treatment center. They still didn’t trust her not to go into the bathroom after dinner and puke her meal back up, not that she’d ever given them a reason to doubt that. Rules were rules and strict supervision after meals and snacks was one rule the center wasn’t willing to deviate from.
Lynnette was being trained how to cook and serve exactly the right amount of food for Winnie’s refeeding plan. There had to be the exact number of calories, servings of protein, vegetables, fiber, carbohydrates, and fats. Since Winnie hadn’t started learning to cook for herself—that part of her therapy didn’t start for another couple of weeks—anytime she went to visit the Anderson’s house, Lynnette was in charge of food, and she had to come “home” to the center immediately following the meal. Winnie felt like a little kid who couldn’t be trusted but recognized that this was for the best. She wanted to get healthy, and this was the best way.
Their first trial visit was going to be on she and Joel’s wedding anniversary and Winnie could hardly wait. But first, her surprise, which coincidentally fell on Christmas Eve.
Winnie waited by the lobby after dinner, watching the door as if that would miraculously bring Joel into the center with her surprise in a big box wrapped in Christmas paper and a large, floppy bow. Instead, two guys in Santa Claus costumes came in with bags of presents for all the girls. Winnie reluctantly left her sentinel at the front door to follow the two Santa’s into the great room where a tall Christmas tree stood decorated.
Everyone gathered around as the two guys called out “Ho-ho-ho,” with obnoxious, fake voices. They were obviously too young to be Santa but were trying to make themselves seem older. They started passing around gifts, soft packages a little larger than a softball. They felt like fluffy socks.
Before Winnie had a chance to rip open her package, a girl from across the room called out, “I think I got Winnie’s by mistake. These are University of Michigan socks.”
“Mine are too,” another girl said. They held up their identical pairs of fluffy socks with gripper slippers on them. Everyone else held theirs up as well and they all looked over at Winnie with confusion.
It was then that Winnie realized the two Santa Clauses had grins under their fake beards and gleams in their eyes.
“Marshall? Gage? What are you doing in California?” Winnie launched herself into her brothers’ arms in a three-way hug full of happy tears. They hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks and laughed and hugged some more before the boys finally answered her questions.
“We brought your husband his Mustang,” Gage said as a way of explanation. “He told me to take care of it for him, but we figure you guys might want it while you’re out here visiting his parents for a few months.”
“Plus, it gave us an excuse to come visit our sister,” Marshall said, pulling one of Winnie’s braids.
“I’m so glad you’re here.” Winnie couldn’t take the smile off her face.
All around her girls were sitting on the couches, chairs, or even right down on the floor to don their new slippers. They were giggling like little kids and thanking Winnie’s brothers. Some of them were openly flirting with Winnie’s brothers. She had a feeling her new friends would be begging Winnie for her brothers’ phone numbers after the guys left.
“Fun surprise?” Joel asked from behind her, sneaking up and almost whispering in her ear.
“Joel!” She turned and leapt into his arms just as she’d done three days ago. She kissed him over and over before telling him, “You come up with the best surprises!”
“I have more gifts,” Joel said, setting her down on the floor and holding up a handful of red and green envelopes. “Come on. Let’s hand these out. They’re more from you than me.”
“What do you mean by that?” Winnie let Joel take her hand and lead her over by the Christmas tree.
“Ladies,” Joel called out, holding up the envelopes. “Can I get your attention?”
They all gathered round with excited eyes.
“These are incentive for Winnie—and all of you—to get healthy enough to use these by next Christmas.” He started passing out the envelopes. “Wait and open them all at once.”
When everyone had an envelope, he gave them permission to open them, and Winnie couldn’t wait to see what he’d gotten them. They looked like tickets to a Broadway show.
“These are vouchers,” Joel said. “Tickets to see The Nutcracker at the Ajkun Ballet Theatre in New York City next Christmas season. I want all of you to come see Winnie dance next year. And I want Winnie to be healthy enough to show off her skills on those toe shoes.”
Winnie had tears streaming down her cheeks, emotion from his love and confidence in her. She threw herself into his arms again and just held him. They clung to one another for a long moment as the girls around them talked excitedly, thanking Joel and affirming their promise to be healthy enough to go to New York City by Christmas of next year.
“I have one more gift for you,” Joel whispered, pulling back from their hug and holding up a sprig of mistletoe. “A kiss and a promise. You have to kiss me first before you get the promise.”
“Gee, if you insist.” Winnie reached onto her toes and met Joel in a chaste but firm kiss. When she pulled away she grinned with excitement. “Now tell me my promise.”
Joel pulled her away from everyone else and spoke quietly and close to her ear. “I promise you an afternoon alone together on our anniversary, lying together on our bed, even if all we feel up to doing is kissing and snuggling and talking. I want to celebrate life with you.”
His words were so sincere and comforting, she pulled away and met his gaze. “I promise you that I’ll be healthy enough by then to do way more than kissing and snuggling and talking.”
“I’m not pushing you to do something your little body isn’t ready for,” Joel said. “I just want us to be together.”
“I want us to be together also,” Winnie said, reaching up to kiss him one more time. “Thank you for making this the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
They kissed for several long, incredible minutes before disentangling themselves to go hang out with Winnie’s brothers and all their new friends around the Christmas tree.