This is a little darker than what I usually write, which is funny because I swore I was going to work on something happy. It needs a huge edit, and I look forward to returning to it one day after I’ve finished with my year of short stories and seeing if something wants to grow from it.
Thanks to Síofra Alexander for catching so many of my grammar mistakes and for not slapping me because of my comma misuse. You can check out her writing at siofraalexander.com and you should, because it’s amazing!
Light from the tree flashed red and green and white, illuminating the dark corner and spreading across the room like silent fireworks on buttercream walls. Twenty two heads were bowed in prayer, sitting on the sofa and fireplace, in chairs brought from the dining room, and cross-legged on the floor, except for the soft voice of my Aunt the room was as quiet as if it were empty.
I tried to count the lights flashing on the wall from my spot on the sofa but got distracted by the way they reflected off Aunt Betty’s Christmas sweater and I had to start over. When I got to fifty again, I felt it come in the room through the closed windows and move from the top of the tree to the bottom, around the feet my niece was tapping and over the sleeping baby in my brother’s arms. It moved like smoke and spread like fire until it was wedged in the space between my sister and I.
I knew it but didn’t look, instead I gripped the plastic cup in my hand and swished the last of my drink watered down by half melted ice breaking the silence of my family’s Christmas prayer.
On the other side of it Molly cleared her throat and raised her head to glare at me. I had to look through it then as it took the shape of a man and became him in solid form.
I closed my eyes and listened to my cousin’s deep voice thanking God for another year and the birth of his son, I tried to pray silently too but hands running from my back to my throat stopped me and I couldn’t remember my name or who God was or what I wanted. The prayer continued on across the room as my Mother said she was grateful we were all together and happy. The hands hurt now as they sank deep into the skin at the back of my neck and gripped on to bone. I tried to sit up straight, tried to make sure my face looked normal for prayer in case anyone opened their eyes and saw me. I tried to hold my breath. I tried to breathe. I heard him call my name and felt the welts rise where his hands had been, like fire burning and shards of glass tearing through flesh. I hurt but I sat still as the prayer wound its was around the sofa I sat on.
My brother thanked God for straight A’s and good kissers, and Grandma gasped throwing her hands in the air and covering her ears and her deaf father noticed and loudly asked what was wrong and where he was and why in the sam hell did everyone have their eyes closed.
Grandpa told Alex to knock off the loose talk and Molly smiled and thanked God in heaven for our family and time together. Beside me he sang a song of my name and of the things he’d done and would do again. I wanted to stand and cover my ears and run but I sat because I could do nothing else and I tried to remember how to pray or to daydream.
I could hear Alex laugh at something Molly said and Dad stood from his seat by the tree and slapped him on the shoulder, stifling all humor and sending a wave of discomfort through the room that was so thick the man with his hands down my shirt felt it and turned and laughed at my father. I looked at him while his face was pointed away from me and saw that he had the same bad haircut he always had and the same scar running from his ear to his cheek. He turned back to me and pulled his hand away long enough to wipe it across his forehead. A rush of cold air hit the skin he’d abandoned and I had a moment of relief until he smiled at me and winked and reminded me of all I knew I would never forget.
“Natalie” Mom whispered my name from across the room and I froze unable to think of one right thing to say. I didn’t want to make anyone cry anymore or shake their head or pat my arm.
The man halted his assault and I wondered as I looked into my mom’s open eyes if he too was waiting to hear what I would say.
With eyes still open I said, “I’m thankful” I began and stopped and saw Dad looking at me and Molly turn her head toward me again, everyone waiting.
“You’ve got nothing” he said leaning in so close to my ear that I could feel his hot breath.
I clicked my teeth together twice buying time I didn’t have, knowing that he was right, “I’m thankful” I said again.
“That anyone wanted you at all.” he finished and pulled my hair as he spoke and I tried not to let my head fall back while more eyes opened and no one told me to hurry.
“I can’t,” I said and stood and walked away into the empty kitchen leaving a room filled with questions and the sound of my niece asking, “What’s wrong with Aunt Natalie this time?”
I heard Grandma finish the prayer by saying how glad she was that we were all together and how loved each one of us were.
I sat down on the barstool and waited for him to take his place next to me but he didn’t sit and he didn’t speak. He laughed low and loud and put his hands around my neck and squeezed until I thought I’d pass out, even though I knew I couldn’t.
In the living room a chorus of voices filled the air and sounded like a hive of bees buzzing in a hundred conversations. I heard Molly’s voice coming down the hall, “she always does this,” she grumbled and I knew her arms would be crossed and her face puckered in an expression she made to convey discontent though all she had to do was be in a room to fill it with her silent anger if she wanted to.
I rubbed my throat and told myself that this wasn’t real when my Mom and Molly rounded the corner into the kitchen and approached me without saying anything.
“You ok?” Molly asked because Mom made her.
I nodded and felt his hands squeeze.
“What’s wrong?” Mom asked moving to my side. The hands around my throat released and moved to my shoulders, rubbing in slow round motions down my arms and back.
“It’s nothing.” I lied because it was easier than a truth I couldn’t explain.
“Honey,” Mom said, “You just seem so unhappy.”
I put my head in my hands and looked down at the cheap linoleum countertop. I rubbed my forehead as he rubbed my back and mom placed her cold hand on my neck.
“It’s time to get over it.” She said and tears began to pool in the corners of my eyes. I tried to hide my face in my hands even as I knew she knew by the change in my breathing that I was crying.
“Its been years.” I heard her voice break.
“You know what they say,” Molly chimed “if you hold onto something that happened to you it’s the memory that’s hurting you, not the actual event.”
I laughed at her and sat up straight, wiping my eyes, feeling his breath on my neck where Mom’s hand still rested and I couldn’t stop. I told her that I didn’t think that’s how the expression went and she turned around and walked away and said that if anyone would know how the expression went, I would.
“It’s really good she’s going into counseling” Mom looked at the space she’d left when she walked away, “clearly she has a nack for it.”
We both laughed and she pulled me down from the stool, into her arms and held me until Grandpa called for us to come in the living room and open presents. I told her I’d be right in and she looked at me a long few seconds before she left.
I walked to the cabinet and took out a glass and filled it up with tap water. I stood at the sink and stared out the window overlooking cow fields and I drank. He moved to stand beside me and I turned to face him. He touched my face and ran his forefinger down my neck and chest and I didn’t break eye contact until the bile rose up and I leaned into the sink and threw up. He rubbed my back and I wiped my mouth. I’d long since stopped asking him to leave. He’d always be there, he told me, until one day maybe he wouldn’t be.
“It’s not up to you.” He’d said one night when I was ten.
I took another drink of water and saw that snow was starting to fall.
“I’m thankful for that,” I said pointing at the silver flakes beginning to cover the grass. He said nothing but held out his hand for me to move past him as we both left the kitchen for the living room and my family waiting to celebrate Christmas morning.
Callie Armstrong © 2014