The Christmas Party
Her pen out of ink, Heather tossed it in the trash can next to the kitchen counter and dug through the junk drawer for a pencil. Finding one with somewhat of a point left, she returned to her list, making check marks next to the items that had already been acquired. She hadn’t bought any yams, but Aunt Tilly would take care of that. She always brought the yams.
“Is Susan bringing that commie again this year?” Heather’s husband, Doug asked, reaching over Heather’s shoulder to snatch a star shaped cookie from a red and green tin.
“Marty isn’t a commie,” Heather said, sliding the lid on the tin before Doug could do more damage to his waistline. “He’s just young. He hasn’t figured things out yet.”
“He’s a god damned libtard. Ten to one, the jerk off shows up wearing a mask.”
“And if he does you’ll leave him alone,” Heather said, turning to poke Doug in the chest with the eraser end of her pencil.
“Did you see how he carried on at Chad’s wedding?” Doug asked, snatching the pencil from his wife’s hand and tossing it onto the counter. “He might as well have accused us of being murderers. If he was so scared of the virus, why’d he bother to show up?”
“For the same reason he’ll be here for Christmas. Susan and I told him he had to,” Heather said folding her arms across her chest to remind Doug it worked the same way for him. The wife was the boss. “He doesn’t want to end up in divorce court, which is where you’ll be ending up if you don’t behave yourself.” Doug grunted and wandered off to the refrigerator for a beer.
Like Doug, Heather wasn’t too concerned about the pandemic, but there was no point in antagonizing the people who bought into the hype. If Marty wanted to go about looking like a fool in that mask, that was Susan’s problem. All that mattered was that he showed up. She opened the refrigerator and counted the beers. Only two were missing. Doug would be alright as long as Marty and Susan didn’t stay too long after dinner. If they did, hopefully Doug would be in full Santa mode, and concentrate his efforts on passing out the gifts. Dressed as Santa, Doug always distributed all the gifts, no matter who they were from.
Heather was about to check on the ham when she heard her daughter’s voice hailing her from the foyer. They met in the hallway with hug.
“I thought you were going to show up early to help me with the decorations,” Heather said, scooping up the chubby cheeked girl tugging on her apron.
“Doug put up a fight. I had to throw a fit to get him out the door.”
Heather shook off the frown that had started to mar her face, gave her granddaughter a peck on the cheek and set the child down so she was facing the tree.
“Is there a present under there for me?”
“Why don’t you go have a look,” Heather said with a grin. “No peeking under the wrapping.”
As the girl scurried off, Heather put her arm around Susan and led her to the kitchen.
“Where’s Marty now?”
“In the car. I assume he’ll be in soon,” Susan said with a sigh. “He said he had some calls to make.”
“Well, I’m sure he wants to wish his parents Merry Christmas. It’s a shame they couldn’t fly in like they usually do.”
“Marty wouldn’t have let them. He thinks we should all put our lives on hold until this pandemic ends.”
“That’s silly. Life is for living,” Heather said, suddenly remembering the ham. “I wish your father hadn’t insisted on ham this year,” she said, peering into the oven. “They always come out too dry when I cook them.”
“I’m worried Marty isn’t going to come around,” Susan said, handing her mother the meat thermometer that was sitting by the sink.
“Of course he will. Just give him time.”
“But what if he finds out about dad? He’d never accept it.”
“We just won’t tell him.”
“How are we supposed to keep something like that from him? The whole family knows.”
Heather started to reassure her daughter, but the doorbell cut her off.
“That’s probably Tilly,” Heather said. “Go let her in. She probably has an armful of presents.”
A moment later, Susan was leading Tilly and Marty to the tree in the living room.
“Marty was nice enough to rescue me,” Tilly said. “I was about to spill yams all over the porch,”
“Glad to be of service,” Marty said, adding his burden of brightly wrapped boxes onto the stack of similar packages beneath the tree. Heather was disappointed to see he was wearing a N95 mask.
“It’s good to see you, Marty,” Heather said, giving him a hug. “You don’t come around often enough.”
“I’ve just been trying to limit my contact with the unvaccinated for now. Of course I’ve missed you all.”
“Well, I’m glad you made an exception for today. There’s beer in the fridge in the garage. Go help yourself before Doug drinks it all.”
“I came prepared,” Marty said, pulling a straw out of his pocket. Christ, Heather thought, realizing he planned to drink with his mask on. She wondered how he planned to handle the ham and green bean casserole.
Aside from a few hostile glances, Doug left Marty alone throughout the day as presents were opened, dinner was served, and people left to make room for new arrivals, popping in to sample the peach cobbler and share a hug. It wasn’t until Susan asked Heather if she had seen Marty, and she realized Doug was also missing, that Heather felt a tinge of panic. Susan noted her mother’s expression and bolted from the room, making for her father’s work shed in the backyard. Heather raced after her.
“Don’t go in there,” Heather said, catching her daughter and pulling her away from the door as she reached for the knob. “It’s too late.”
“But that’s my husband he has in there!” Susan shouted, brushing her mother’s hand off her shoulder and turning back to the door. Before Heather, who was still trying to catch her breath, could stop her, Susan yanked the door open.
Doug, still in his Santa suit, stood over the body on the floor with his pants around his ankles. His back was to them, but they could tell he was frantically masturbating on Marty, whose head had been pulverized with the heavy crescent wrench resting in a pool of blood next to him.
Susan would be fine, Heather thought as she left her daughter tucked in bed, full of sleeping pills. As she passed the pictures, hung in neat rows in the hallway, she stopped and scowled. She’d have to rearrange them all to make room for a picture of Marty. Foolish Marty! Imagine going on about possibly losing someone to some stupid germs! Every year at Christmas Doug chose a victim. Sometimes it was a family member. Sometimes he got too drunk, waited too long, and had to go out hunting after the party. Heather always hated it when that happened. She always worried he’d get caught. Better to make the annual sacrifice here at home among people who wouldn’t betray them. Christmas must always go on, she thought. Traditions must be upheld no matter what the cost.
Sitting down at the kitchen table, she smiled at Tilly, who had stayed to help clean up, as Tilly set a mug of hot cocoa before her.
“Susan took it pretty hard,” Tilly said between coughs. Sitting down across from Heather, she blew her nose in a paper towel and looked disapprovingly at the greenish glob that had come out of her nose.
“She’ll be fine,” Heather said, her voice cracking. She took a gulp of cocoa, hoping to relive the sudden scratchy feeling in her throat.