"Mommy?" she coos. "Can we bring some of the Christmas boxes up from the basement now?"
I can't see through the shampoo in my eyes, but I can see through their plotting.
They sent her, knowing she had the best chance, the only chance really, of safely confronting the Grinch in her cave.
They've been after me for weeks to launch into the annual festival of clutter.
"It's too early," I say at Thanksgiving. A week later I begin outlining conditions. "When the entire house is clean and sparkling and looks like a spread from Architectural Digest, then we can start decorating," I say. "There are six pairs of shoes and a pile of dirty dishes in the living room. You can't tinsel over that."
This morning the negotiations begin in earnest. She promises to clean the living room. He promises to help. I promise to think about it. Daddy tells them I hate Christmas. "I don't hate Christmas," I say. "I just don't think clutter is festive. Can we just keep it simple for once?"
The next thing I know, he has three ladders perched against the side of the house and is taunting the neighbors. The family from down the street stops by in their minivan to challenge him. "You've got a long way to go," says Mr. Minivan. "Hah," says Mr. Kamikaze, scaling the highest peak on the roof with his hands full of lights. "I haven't even started."
"For God's sake, you're going to kill yourself," I shout up at him. He laughs. "Spend the insurance money wisely," he says. We both know I will spend the money on shoes.
Later, I will return outside to find that he has lit every peak of the house and is running lights along the gutters, the chimney, the windows and an old bird's nest.
"Enough," I will say. He will laugh and ask the children if they think it's enough. I cannot win this argument. But I can't imagine how far things would go if I put up no fight at all. I am the only thing standing between my family and holiday madness.
Now Cindy-Lou wants to bring up "some" of the boxes from the basement. She has her charm set to maximum. "I cleaned the whole living room," she says, smiling and batting her eyes.
I want to finish my shower. "Fine," I say. "Just a few."
The downstairs is in chaos before I am even dressed. Heavy boxes are dragged up the stairs in a steady percussion of thumping and bumping. The cartons and bins are opened as quickly as they arrive, the contents strewn across the room.
It is a scene for the Christmas cards, the 10-year-old in her antlers, the 13-year-old in his Santa hat, pawing through the garland, rediscovering and claiming their favored objects. Their eyes shine like the decade's worth of glitter embedding itself in the rugs.
"That one is mine," says the boy emphatically. He is not using any kind of Who voice. "That tree has been in my room every year for the past four years."
By the time I come downstairs, Daddy thinks he has resolved the issue by decree: Nobody will get the little light-up Christmas tree in their room. He goes back outside with another box of lights. Oh yeah, that settles it.
The children are on me before my feet hit the bottom step: "Mom," says the teenager. "You need to settle this. Take a side," he demands.
"Whoa," I say. "I don't even know what the argument is." We come to terms after several rounds of protracted litigation. He will get the light-up Christmas tree with the star on top, she will get first pick of the stuffed animals. She chooses his Mouse King, which briefly threatens to scuttle the deal.
On our way to the Christmas tree lot we argue over the definition of "hypothermia." This is settled more quickly than a debate over whether the teenager should have an iPod touch.
"It's my money," he says sourly.
At home, Mr. Kamikaze has to shave six inches off the top of the tree.
Even so, it touches the ceiling.
A perfect fit.