As a child, Ellen was afraid of that clock, that steeple, the gaunt cross at its peak. Strings of smoke from the electric company rippled behind it like the shadows of large birds, and she was always relieved to go inside, to sit between her mother and her sisters in their usual pew down front. The altar shone like a holiday table, decorated with flowers and white linen; the air was scented with incense, shoe polish, the sweet odor of women's perfume. Often she'd sleep with her head on her mother's purse, lulled by the murmur of the congregation's responses and the slow, steady thrum of the hymns. The church was no less familiar than any room in the house where she, like all of her sisters, had been born, fifteen miles north of Holly's Field. They came to Saint Michael's for Mass on Sundays, for Wednesday night Devotions whenever they could, for plays and recitals and long days of school, for holiday celebrations. Every Christmas Eve, their mother drove them up and down the streets of Holly's Field to see the Christmas lights, ending the tour at Saint Michael's parking lot - the grand finale - where a twenty-foot wreath opened the darkness like an astonished red mouth. This was a treat they waited for all year, talked about for weeks afterward. And yet, Ellen always felt a sweet, secret relief at folding back into the blackness of the countryside, heading for home, the quietly lit farmhouses spread out from one another as if they'd fallen to earth, a shower of meteorites, each still faintly burning.
Now, though it's less than a week since Thanksgiving, Holly's Field is already strung with decorations. Plastic Santa Clauses wave from front lawns; nativity scenes glow between the bushes. Looking back, Ellen notices that only the house at 512 is dim, giving off the frail light of an ordinary table lamp. Fritz refuses to pay for the extra electricity; he doesn't want the bother of putting up a Christmas tree. Other years, visiting for a few days at Christmas, Ellen didn't mind. After all, there were lights and decorations and a fresh-cut tree at her mother's house for the children to enjoy. But this year it was different because 512 Vinegar Hill was home.