Are you sorry, Elizabeth? That you had them at all, I mean?
It is Sam, finally, who asks her the question we've all been secretly nurturing.
She swirls her palms through the steam that rises from the hot spring. After a moment she looks up, her eyes bright with fresh unshed tears.
No. I'll never be sorry.
A beat, two beats. Her long fingers trace silvery designs in the moonlit mist. Her eyes glow warm and green.
You know why?
I can't speak, can't breathe. My airway's constricted. She's so goddam strong, it hurts to look at her.
I pinch Sam, hard. He winces, grabs my hand, waits for Elizabeth to speak. She bites her bottom lip hard enough to leave a dent. A beat. Another.
Because. Because I got to know them. I got to hold them, each one of them. See their eyes.
She flicks tears from her own eyes and, incredibly, she smiles.
And their little heads. They were like...like peaches. Yeah, just like peaches. Tiny, soft, perfect little peaches. And every detail, every single detail...
She trails off for a moment, stares past us toward her memories.
Do you want to hear this? Because I can shut up.
I find my voice, but it's thick and unfamiliar. No. I mean, yes. I want to hear. Please let me hear.
She reaches over, squeezes my hand, smiles a sad reassurance. Comforting me. Comforting me. Jesus.
I know you wanted to be there, Ash. But it's OK, because I could feel you there in the room. It's like...like we were all there, every one of us. The ones who are still alive, and the family who's gone on ahead, too. It's like they were right there in the room, waiting to take them home.
I can't speak again.
It was as though they had escorts, you know? They came out of me one by one, they were here with us all. Then they just...went home.
Sam is holding his breath, too. I take his hand, but gently this time.
They had their own little personalities, even. I could tell that Paul was going to be a sweet one, a Mama's boy. He went so quietly - didn't put up a fight, just snuggled into my arms and breathed for a little while.
I can feel my face crumpling. I can't help it, can't make it stop.
Shhh...shhh, Ashley. I'm serious, it was a good thing, I can't explain how or why, but it was good. They were...real. Anna's fingernails were like shells, like - what do you call it - mother-of-pearl, is that right?
Sam nods, reaches for me, pulls my head to his shoulder.
Elizabeth shines in the moonlight, remembering.
Yeah. Just like that, like the inside of a shell. But so tiny...
She shakes her head slowly, amazed afresh.
Anna was the one...well, you know how when you meet some people you just know they'll be your friend? The way just laying eyes on someone marks them out as special. Anna was like that. I could tell she was the one I'd laugh with the most, maybe cry with the most, too. She was a pistol, that's what Mom said as soon as she saw her. Funny, that one. You could just tell.
I almost don't want to know about Abby, because she was the last one, the one the doctors said might make it. Abby was the last little ray of hope. But I do, I do want to know about Abby, because she was my niece and because I will not hold her.
Elizabeth is quiet for a long time. I start to breathe again.
I ask: What about...
I nod. I watch my sister. It is my turn to be amazed as an enormous grin illuminates her sweet, tired face.
Abby? She was my heart. That's all.
I glance over at Sam, whose face is wet and dark. He swipes at his cheeks angrily and clears his throat.
Elizabeth pats him on his shoulder.
Don't, Sam. You just can't be mad. There was a reason that they were here, that they came. Every one of them, each of the three, was special and loved and beautiful, and I know they didn't suffer for a single minute.
And Sam can't help it, he says Yes, but what about you? Don't you suffer? It's not...
Elizabeth is radiant. She glows.
I know it isn't. But it was a privilege. And you wanted to know, and I understand why, but I am not sorry. Not for a moment.
Sam looks at her. It's his turn to be amazed on this, the most amazing of evenings.
Elizabeth sips her wine, looks toward the lodge.
Here comes Jason, she says. It's Christmas Eve, she says, and I think we should just let this go for his sake. He's so tired of being sad.
And hearing that, I can't resist one last question.
Elizabeth. Aren't you tired of being sad?
My sister's eyes flash at me, and I realize how wrong my question is.
Ashley. Listen: sad is too small. I haven't found a word for what I am, but there's so much more to it than sad, and some of it is beautiful.
Elizabeth looks up at her husband, who loves her.
Jason's here! Make room for Jason, Sam.
And Sam does, and suddenly, silently, it's Christmas.