“Giana! Your mother needs her assistant chef!” Zeke knocked on his teenage daughter’s door. It opened, revealing a girl with brown eyes, a dark shade of chestnut brown hair, and a sprinkling of cute freckles around her nose. Her nose was just like her Aunt Illeana’s.
“Give me five minutes.” Giana told her father. “I’m on the phone with Yori.”
“Fine. Five minutes!” Giana closed the door and Zeke went back into the kitchen.
“Is she coming out of her room?” Freya looked up from mashing the potatoes. “She’s been locked up in there since school let out for Thanksgiving.”
“She’ll be down soon,” Zeke said.
“Check in on the turkey please?” Freya asked. “I swear it’s taking longer and longer to cook.”
“Don’t worry.” Zeke turned on the oven light. The turkey stuffed with veggies and fragrant herbs glistened under the light. “Everything looks like it’s right on track.”
“That’s good,” Freya sighed. “Only a thousand things left to do.”
“My parents texted me. They’re on their way with some pumpkin and apple pies,” Zeke said.
“Did someone say pumpkin pie?” Giana bounced into the kitchen.
“Gran and Pops are bringing it just for you.” Zeke rustled Giana’s hair. “They know no Thanksgiving dinner will be complete without it.”
“Gran and Pops are the best,” Giana beamed. “I can’t wait to see them.”
“Yep. Everyone’s coming over today,” Zeke said. “Even baby Adler.”
“Oh, cousin Maybel’s new baby? Mom showed me his pictures! He’s so cute and tiny,” Giana said.
“You were just like that when you were born,” Freya said.
“Only cuter,” Zeke said. “But don’t tell Maybel that.”
“Promise,” Giana giggled.
“G, help your dad with the mac and cheese,” Freya said. “After that, I need some help setting the table.”
“Yes, Mom.” Giana and Zeke got to work on the mac and cheese. They might have added a bit more cheese than the recipe called for, but they didn’t mind. They liked their mac and cheese the same way: extra cheesy.
“Giana, put the chips and dip out on the table,” Freya ordered. “That way people can have something to munch on when they arrive.”
“Yes, Mom.” Giana did as she was told.
“Everything is perfect,” Zeke said to Freya. “You can relax now. Enjoy the holiday.”
“Easy for you to say,” Freya huffed. “I did all the heavy lifting.”
“I appreciate that more than you will ever know. I love you.” Zeke kissed Freya.
“Mom! Dad! Eww!” Giana returned, her face scrunched up in disgust. Before Zeke could say anything, the doorbell rang.
“Go get the door,” Freya said with a laugh. “That might be Gran and Pops.”
Thankful to get away, Giana went to answer the door.
“Teenagers,” Zeke sighed.
“There’s my darling granddaughter!” Pops’s voice declared. “Come give your Pops a hug!” Giana came into the kitchen with her paternal grandparents in tow.
“Hi Mom! Dad!” Zeke gave them a hug.
“Freya, dear, it smells wonderful in here!” Gran said.
“Thank you. Please excuse the mess,” Freya said, a bit embarrassed.
“Nonsense.” Gran waved away Freya’s embarrassment. “Your house is cleaner than mine ever was. Especially around the holidays. Where do you want the pies?”
Uncles, aunts, cousins, and family friends arrived soon after. They quickly filled up the house.
“There’s so much food!” Zeke whispered to Freya. Their tiny kitchen island was no match for the food, so the dining room table caught the overflow. There were meat dishes, like ham, prime rib, and two turkeys, side dishes like mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, corn, creamed spinach, cornbread, green salads, and finally desserts like pies, cakes, and brownies. There would be leftovers and more leftovers and even more leftovers. “You shouldn’t have cooked at all!”
“Don’t be silly.” Freya playfully slapped Zeke’s arm. “It was no big deal.”
Warmth, laughter, and love filled Zeke’s house. Someone put on music and the living room became a dance club. Groups formed, broke off from the rest of the crowd, and claimed a spot in the house as theirs. The biggest group was the one surrounding Maybel and her baby. They had laid claim to the sitting room and among the group members was an eager and excited Giana.
Zeke exited the bathroom and spotted his parents looking at the photographs hanging in the hallway.
“Mom! Dad! Whatcha looking at?” Zeke joined them. They were looking at a picture from the last Thanksgiving their entire family was present for.
“She would have fought Giana for that pumpkin pie,” Gran said.
“She had a big heart,” Pops said. “She would have gladly given Giana the pie and watched from the sidelines.”
“Illeana would have been so happy to see everyone,” Zeke said.
“It only feels like yesterday she was eating dinner with us.” Gran brushed her finger over Illeana’s face.
“Then came that terrible phone call. They said they would find her. That they would devote all their time and resources into bringing our Illeana home. Twenty years later, and we’re still waiting for answers to her disappearance.” Pops wiped tears from his eyes. He turned and left Zeke and his mother alone.
“It’s still hard for him to think about her,” Gran said. “It makes me sad too. But I’m afraid that if I don’t think about Illeana, she would think that I forgot about her.”
“Mom, don’t think that way.” Zeke placed an arm around his mother’s shoulder. “Illeana knows you loved her and always will.”
“I just wish she was here.” Gran looked up at Zeke. “You two were inseparable. It’s a wonder she didn’t even tell you where she was headed that night.”
“I know,” Zeke said. He looked into his sister’s smiling teenage face. “I wonder every day where she could have gone and what had happened to her.”
“Illeana would have loved Freya and spoiled Giana rotten,” Gran sighed. “I miss her so much.”
“I do too, Mom.” Zeke gently pulled his mother away from the picture to rejoin the family. “Come, I think it’s almost time to eat. You know Illeana wouldn’t want us to starve.”
It was hard finding a place for so many people to sit and eat. But in the end, everyone had a spot and everyone had food. When the doorbell rang, Zeke got up to get it since he was closest to the door.
“Y...you…” Zeke couldn’t find words to express himself. In front of him was a teenage girl with long brown hair, hazel eyes, and she wore a lavender sweater.
“Hi, Zeke,” the girl said shyly.
“Illeana?” Zeke couldn’t believe it.
“Duh. Can I come in or what?” Illeana pushed past him and into the house. Zeke couldn’t move. It couldn’t be Illeana.
“Illeana!” Gran got up and ran over to her daughter, who had finally come home. “You’re here!” Mother and daughter embraced for the first time in twenty years.
“Hi Mom!” Illeana laughed. “Where’s Dad?” Pops stood up and Illeana went over to give him a hug. After that, Gran and Pops introduced Illeana to the rest of the family one by one.
“Dad?” Giana poked his arm. “Who’s that woman?”
“It’s your Aunt Illeana,” Zeke said. “She came back.”
Gran and Pops made room for Illeana to sit between them. Gran prepared her a plate and set it down in front of her.
“Oh, Mom! You didn’t have to do that!” Illeana said. “I can get my own plate.”
“Shush and let your mom dote on you for a bit,” Gran said.
“Illeana, where have you been?” Pops demanded. “Do you know how long I…”
“This all looks good!” Illeana said. “Did you make all this food, Mom?”
“No. We all pitched in. Freya, Zeke’s wife, cooked the main dishes,” Gran said. She pointed to Freya and Freya gave a small wave.
“Zeke’s married?” Illeana was shocked at the news. “Wow, bro. Way to bury the lede there. Hi Freya!”
“Did you know your sister was coming?” Freya whispered to Zeke.
“I don’t even know where she has been for the last two decades,” Zeke whispered back. After dinner, Zeke went up to Illeana and asked to speak to her alone.
“Well, Zeke, looks like you’re doing just fine!” Illeana punched his arm.
“Yeah. I… I guess.” Zeke didn’t quite know what to say to his sister. “Where have you been?”
“Your house is lovely.” Illeana ignored his question. “Freya and Giana are beautiful. I don’t know them that well yet, but I already have a feeling we’re going to get along great!”
“Illeana, why do you still look like that?” Zeke asked.
Zeke pulled Illeana to the hallway and showed her the picture. “Like that. You look exactly like you did twenty years ago.”
“I got the good genes,” Illeana shrugged. “Sorry big bro. You got stuck with the ugly ones.”
“No, not that,” Zeke said. “It’s been twenty years since the last time we saw each other. How do you still look like a teenager?”
“Ay, you’re still caught up on all the details, huh? Does it matter where I’ve been or what I’ve been doing? Enjoy the time we have together Zeke! ”
“Yes! How do you expect me to make up for twenty year’s worth of lost time?”
“Tell me all the good stuff that has happened. Briefly mention the bad. But most importantly, just relax and breathe. We’re together now and that’s all that matters.”
“Fine. Okay.” Zeke showed Illeana the other pictures on the wall. He told her about the graduations, dances, birthday parties, his wedding, and Giana’s birth.
“Wow. Looks like you had a nice life, Zeke.” Zeke had shown Illeana the last picture.
“It would have been better if you were there too,” Zeke said. “Mom and Dad missed you. I missed you.”
“I missed you too.” Illeana looked up at Zeke, tears welling in her eyes. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you guys like that. I thought I was going to come back but…”
“Do you remember what happened at all?”
“No.” The tears flowed from Illeana’s eyes and down her cheeks. “I’m so sorry, Zeke. I’m sorry for making you and Mom and Dad go through all this.”
“Shh. It’s okay.” Zeke pulled Illeana in for a hug. She let her tears out and Zeke patted her head. “Everything’s fine. We have all the time in the world now."
~ ~ ~
“Dad?” Giana’s voice broke into Zeke’s thoughts. “Dad, it’s time to eat.”
Zeke opened his eyes. A fifty-two year old Giana smiled at him.
“You’re up,” Giana said.
“Yeah. Is everyone here?”
“Almost,” Giana said. “Mom’s putting the finishing touches on the turkey. You know she can’t just leave things alone.”
“That’s your mother,” Zeke said. “Always the perfectionist.” Giana helped her father out of bed and into the wheelchair. They headed out to the dining room where the rest of the family had gathered.
“What were you dreaming about?” Giana asked. “You were mumbling when I came into the room.”
“Your Aunt Illeana,” Zeke said. “In my dream, she came over to Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Maybe she’s trying to tell you she’s going to be having dinner with us today.”
“I would like that,” Zeke said.
“I’m sorry we never really knew what happened to her. But, I’d like to think wherever Aunt Illeana is now, she’s happy. Don’t you think so Dad?”
“I hope so. You know, you have her nose.”
“You’ve told me that many times. And I’m glad to have her nose. It’s a good nose.”
“Giana, can you do me a favor?” Zeke looked up to Giana. She looked more and more like Illeana as the years went on.
“Of course, Dad. What is it?”
“Can you set a place for Illeana at the table? She likes pumpkin pie, like you do, you know.”
“Absolutely. I’ll cut the biggest piece and leave it out for her. Do you think she’ll like that?”
“She’ll love it,” Zeke said. “Thank you.”