Maria’s husband, Jack, brings the elf out every Christmas and nestles it in the branches of the tree, like it’s hiding. Jack had this elf when he was a kid. Its green felt body and legs have faded. Its face is chipped. But its eyes are bright, and Maria feels it watching her from its perch, tucked back against the trunk of the tree.
Every time their two-year-old son, Eric, catches sight of it, he screams and runs to Maria.
“Take it off, Jack,” Maria says. “It scares Eric.”
Jack laughs. “It was my Christmas elf. I love this thing. He’ll love it, too. You’ll see.” Jack takes the elf out of the tree and starts toward Eric, who bursts into tears and reaches for Maria. She picks him up and he buries his face against her neck.
“Come to Daddy,” Jack says, but Eric clings to Maria, his arms tight around her neck. Jack plays peek-a-boo with the elf, pops it up behind Maria, hides it again. “Peek-a-boo!” Jack says in a high-pitched voice. “I see you!” Eric looks up, his face crumples. He howls.
“Stop it, Jack. Leave him alone.”
Jack looks, what, forlorn? “Okay, okay. But I’m putting it back on the tree.” He goes in the living room and Maria hears the tinkle of ornaments, moving.
While Jack’s at work, Maria hides the elf in a drawer. “It’s gone, baby,” she tells Eric. “See?” But Eric still cries and refuses to go in the living room where the tree is. Maria is miffed. Jack’s ruining the first Christmas Eric might possibly remember.
It’s not just the elf, though. There’s something else, something bigger. Maria has read that men are sometimes jealous of their own babies. When women become mothers, they change. It’s hard being a mother and a wife.
When Maria and Jack agreed she would stay home for a couple of years after the baby came, Maria was glad. She hated the thought of leaving her baby in day care. Doing without her salary would be a sacrifice, but she could freelance from home, once the baby got a little older. And she has done that.
The trouble is, Jack comes in, kicks off his shoes, gets a beer, turns on the TV, drops on the couch, and doesn’t do a thing to help Maria. He plays with Eric, but mostly he gets the baby revved up so he has trouble going to sleep. Jack makes Maria’s job harder. And the sex—oh, God, it used to be so good. Now, most of the time, she’s too tired to think about it, but Jack won’t let her alone.
She can’t imagine her life without the baby. She can imagine it without Jack.
Most nights, Jack gets home late, after Eric is asleep. Maria puts the elf back on the tree before he comes in. The night before Christmas Eve, Jack says, “Where’s my elf?”
“Isn’t it on the tree?”
“You know it’s not, Maria. What’d you do with it?”
She shrugs. “I didn’t do anything. Maybe it fell. Did you look?” She goes back to the kitchen. Her heart is racing.
Jack is opening and closing cabinets and drawers. He yells, “This isn’t funny. Where’d you hide it?”
“I didn’t. Please be quiet. You’ll wake Eric.”
The elf made a smelly, smoky little fire in the back yard that morning while Eric was taking his nap. Maria burned it in an old metal garden bucket and scattered the ashes in a flowerbed, almost ceremoniously. The plastic face melted in the most grotesque way. She buried it. Only the jingle bell was left. She threw it over the fence.
Jack heads out the back door. She hears him rummaging through the trashcans. When he comes back inside, he’s flushed and winded. His eyes are unnaturally bright. Maria holds her breath until he stalks past her, through the kitchen, down the hall, into the living room. She imagines him looking at the blank space in the middle of the tree, looking deep into its branches, trying to see what isn’t there.