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It Must Have Been the Mistletoe

By:Kate Hoffmann

It Must Have Been the Mistletoe_. - Kate Hoffmann

THE WINDOWS OF THE converted school bus were caked with frost. Alison Cole peered out at the dimly lit parking lot. Though she loved winter, she’d always imagined it would be much more comfortable spent in a real home, with a fireplace and a functioning furnace and a Christmas tree with lights and tinsel—not in an old bus traveling the highways of…well, whatever state they’d found themselves in that day.

Today, they were at a holiday craft fair in Minot, South Dakota. Or was it North Dakota? Her musician parents were inside the arena, entertaining the crowds, while their three children were supposed to be doing the math homework their mother had assigned that morning.

Though her parents found this gypsy lifestyle fulfilling, Alison couldn’t say the same for herself. A thirteen-year-old girl was supposed to experience certain things in life—boys, shopping, movies, school dances. She didn’t even have a best friend, beyond eleven-year-old Layla and nine-year-old Rita. And who wanted to be best friends with their little sisters?

“That’s mine!” Rita screamed.

Alison turned away from the window to see her sisters fighting over a fashion magazine. She broke up the argument and grabbed the offending article. “Where did you get this?”

Rita stared at her sullenly, refusing to answer, her arms crossed over her chest.

“She stole it,” Layla confessed. “She found it on the counter at that diner where we ate dinner last night and she put it in her backpack on the way out.”

“No one wanted it,” Rita cried. “And it was just sitting there. They would have thrown it out anyway.”

“Why would you want this?” Alison asked, flipping through the pages of Vogue. “It’s for grown-ups, not little girls.”

“I’m not little!” Rita reached out and grabbed the magazine. “Besides, I like the pictures. The models are…pretty. And the clothes are interesting. I’m making my Christmas list.” She pointed to a photo. “I want these shoes.”

Alison shook her head. “We should practice. I have a new song I want to try.”

“We’re supposed to do our math,” Layla said.

In order to accommodate a life of touring, their mother had been homeschooling the girls at a table near the front of the bus. In addition to the basic subjects like math and history, the girls also got a large dose of traditional American music from their father—folk, country, bluegrass—along with a smattering of rock and pop. And all on their parents’ collection of instruments—guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer.

When they weren’t playing, they were listening, anything from Robert Johnson to Bill Monroe to the most obscure artists their father could find in the discount bin at the music stores they frequented. Alison had saved her meager allowance and made her first purchase a few years ago—a Jean Ritchie cassette she’d found at a flea market where her parents had been playing. From the moment she’d popped the cassette into the player, she knew this was her kind of music, simple mountain songs, full of longing and despair. This was the voice of an angel, and every day since, she’d tried to emulate it.

“Get your mandolin out, Layla. We can do math later.” Her sister eagerly scrambled over a pile of laundry that their mother had left for them to fold and grabbed the battered case of the mandolin she’d received the previous Christmas. Layla glanced over at Rita, who was now absorbed in her magazine, an anxious expression on her face.

Their youngest sister had never been interested in music. At only nine, she’d made it her goal to hate everything that Alison and Layla loved. She refused to conform to what anyone expected of her. She was stubborn and rebellious and a general pain in the butt. And yet, Alison still hadn’t given up on her. If Rita had inherited any musical talent at all, it wouldn’t take long to teach her what she needed to know.

“Skeeter, you have to sing, too,” Alison said. She used her pet name for Rita, hoping she might persuade her sister to join in willingly. “This song really needs harmony and I can’t sing both parts.”

Rita rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “No. I’m reading. Make Layla sing.”

“You’re looking at pictures,” Layla said. “And I can’t sing and play at the same time.”

“If you try, just for a little while,” Alison said, “I’ll get you another fashion magazine the next time we’re in town.”

“How are you going to do that?” Rita asked. “You don’t have any money.”

Alison wasn’t sure how she’d keep her promise, but that didn’t matter now. She’d heard an interesting song on one of her father’s cassettes and was dying to try it out with her own little trio. The Cole Sisters. That’s what they’d call themselves. Just like the Carter Family or the Judds. Since they were on the road anyway, why not become the opening act for their parents?