Blake shoved his way through the crowd.
Next year, online.
He looked over the herd of men clamoring to get near the counter, stretching their arms and waving to catch a salesgirl’s eye. No Chanel No. 5 for Mom this year.
He shuffled his way back out to the main concourse and leaned against a post. Candy canes and green sparkly garland floated high above his head. The smells of coffee and spiced almonds and the faint body odor of the crowd drifted in the air.
Next year, online. Next year for sure.
He shook his head, checked his list, and dove back into the crowd. He held his wallet and his iPhone in his front pockets. Why did they all wait until Christmas Eve?
Bad enough he had to go along with all of this to keep his mother quiet. Shopping. Spending money he didn’t have on gifts his family didn’t need to celebrate a birthday for a person who wasn’t what people thought and had been dead for two thousand years.
Billions of dollars changing hands. Millions on decorations and chopping down trees, on plastic deer and lights.
One more day. Just get through one more day and the world will go back to normal.
He pushed further through the mall, never getting far enough into a store to make a purchase and end this absurd quest. He stepped into the incense shop to get some fresh air. Blake looked around and realized just how alone he was. An atheist at Christmas.
* * *
His pulled into the driveway behind his brother’s car, and took a deep breath. One night. One ridiculous night, sure. But one night. He counted to ten as he let the air out of his lungs, sucked in another breath, and opened the door.
His mother careened through a cloud of smoke and pine and mulled red wine. She wobbled as she reached up to hug him around his dangling shopping bags full of hastily wrapped gifts. His father trailed behind her. “Can I help you with those, son?” he asked as he took the bags from Blake and headed for the tree.
Blake shrugged off his coat and scarf and turned to see his brother holding out a scotch and water. Finally someone who knows how to get through this. He smiled and took the drink.
The brothers sat down in the living room no one ever used. “You look good. Really good.”
Blake shook his head. “It’s only because of Jennie dragging me to the gym. Never date a CrossFit trainer. Seriously.”
“Thanks for the advice…I’ll remember it if the occasion ever arises. But I think Susanne might have an issue with it. So how is Jennie, anyway? How did she manage to avoid this joyful affair?”
“Leaving me has its advantages. Trust me, if I could do it, I would too.” Blake raised his glass, cocked it at his brother, and drained it.
“Oh, man, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Mom just said she wasn’t coming–didn’t say why. That sucks.”
“It’s OK. Really. Better off anyway. No more going to the gym at 5AM. But she took the dog. I actually miss him.”
Jeremy shook his head and leaned in. “Have you noticed Mom and Dad acting a little weird lately?”
“No, not really, but then I don’t talk to them all that often. Why? What’s up?”
“Well, that’s kind of it. Mom hasn’t been calling as often. And when she does, a lot of times Dad doesn’t get on the phone and talk. They havent said anything unusual — it just feels a little, I don’t know…off.”
“I hadn’t noticed. But you see them more than I do anyway. All Mom ever talks about when she calls is what they’re making for dinner and the next big church event she’s planning. That’s enough to carry us for 15 minutes. Then I tell her things are good and we hang up. So you’re in a better position to notice.”
“Well, keep an ear out, ok? Something seems not-quite-right.”
Susanne’s head appeared in the doorway. “Five minutes ’til dinner. Better freshen your drinks now, boys.”
* * *
Blake rolled his eyes as his mother asked baby Jesus to bless this dinner and bless the family gathered around this table and all the dead relatives and all the family members who couldn’t be here and all the leaders and all the starving children dying of AIDS in Africa and the people who still had to work at Walmart and anyone else she could think of. Blake wished she would bless his scotch and let him get back to it.
When she finally wrapped up with Jesus’ precious name, amen, he dove for the oyster stuffing before Jeremy could grab it. The mayhem of which plates to pass in what direction and Susanna running things to the kids’ table and Uncle Robert announcing his new gluten-free diet and asking the ingredients of each dish sucked up the next few minutes, before everyone settled into the the sound of knives scraping plates and ice clinking in glasses.
“Quiet table means good food. Nice spread, Maryann.” Dad’s annual contribution to the Christmas Eve dinner conversation. He nodded and went back to his turducken as the rest of the family murmured their agreement through mouths full of stuffing or green beans or sweet potatoes.
“Thank you, dear.” Mom replied. Everyone’s head turned — something in her tone caught their attention, and Blake remembered his brother’s comment. Something did seem…off. She sounded like she wasn’t quite done, and he wondered how far she would stray off-script.
“And thank you all for coming. I can’t tell you how much it means to us to have family together on the eve of our Savior’s birth.”
Uh-oh. First the rambling prayer, now this? How much wine has she had?
“I’m so glad all of you have joined us this evening, and I miss every member of our family that isn’t here. More than you can imagine.” She stopped to take another sip of wine. “You see…” Another sip. “This might be the last time we’re all together.”
* * *
Blake sat in the den and listened to the clatter of dishes as Susanne hastily cleared the table and crammed leftovers into containers and ziploc bags. The bare minimum. They would deal with the rest of the mess tomorrow.
The kids ran laps through the house, Grandpa on their tails, shooting each other with Nerf guns, blissfully ignorant to their Grandma’s words and their Grandpa’s cancer.
* * *
Blake filed into the church at 11:45 behind his mother and father, beside his brother and sister-in-law. Slipped into the pew between them, lowered the kneeler, and crossed himself to pray for the first time in years.
First published at The Daily Gallen. Photo credit: Niyam Bhushan via cc