This story is by Kara Roberts and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I sat outside on the curb staring at the tip of my cigarette burning. I watched the tip glow in the reflection of the sewer water before I put it out.
I hadn’t wanted to come home for the holidays; I knew what to expect from my family. But I’d thought, Maybe, just maybe, this time we’d connect.
I looked up the road, at the palm trees haphazardly wrapped in Christmas lights, like a toddler had played dress-up with the neighborhood; I looked back at the house, at the front door glowing, a pretty wreath perched perfectly in the center.
The palm trees and their artificial lighting enticed me, but I knew the wreath had been hung on the door for my arrival. Everything looked as it should, but still, I felt out of place.
“Dear Heavenly Father: thank you for this wonderful meal and for all of us here joined together on this day. Thank you for bringing us together so that we may feel connected through you and so that we may spread your word. Bless this food to our bodies and our bodies to your service. Amen.”
We all sat around an overflowing table staring at our plates of food as we reached for our wine glasses. Polite small-talk was made, and we smiled at our napkins. We’d all had showers and our hair was done. The room was bursting with cleanliness and spices, an aromatic dish whose recipe called for a dash of money necessary for the final flavorings. The furniture was dusted; the floor vacuumed. The waterfall from the just-cleaned pool in the backyard trickled lightly, background music to the judgements as they rushed through the gates of our minds.
“The Brussel sprouts are good.”
“Yeah, really good.”
“And the green beans.”
“Yeah, oh yeah. Delicious.”
“The turkey too.”
Collective Mmm’s reverberated off the glass windows, shelves, cabinets, figurines.
“But I thought you were vegan.” Mary tilted her head; she slanted her brows and contorted her cheeks into opposing stances like standing armies set to strike.
“I was years ago,” I said. “Haven’t been for a while, though.”
She shook her head, freshly tied ponytail whipping back and forth. Her eyes were closed and lips pursed; disbelief trickled from the corners of her face. She held her wine glass like a weapon, the rim pointed at me.
I felt uncomfortable. But I couldn’t place why. Her eyes were kind, after a time. Like all their eyes. They smiled with recognition, the instinctual impulse of familial love; but after that, the barrier was impenetrable, and I saw my place clearly on the cold side of the wall.
“You were just so adamant about it.”
“For a while. Yeah.”
I looked at her eyes as they let off steam. She tucked the glass into the space between gold plate and gold candlestick, momentarily holstered.
Silence hung thick in the air, sluggishly rolled along the white tablecloth. It circled around the table legs and threatened to uplift our flimsy uncertain assertions so that we might lay toppled.
Matthew sneezed. Everybody turned and said, Bless You. I sat, staring at his angled body and watched his face reform from its expression of violence and confusion, congealing back into a normal human shape, as their voices bounced across my face and down my spine, echoing in the back of my mind. I felt short of breath, like I’d been screaming underwater. Like I’d been locked in a cage, on display, for others to poke at for their amusement.
A low growling surfaced from a spot to our right, slowly seeping into our bloodstream. It grew in intensity, leaving us all intoxicated and helpless. The low snarling seemed fitting and I welcomed the distraction – anything to drag the attention away from my confusing life choices.
Matthew sighed grotesquely, dropped his fork where it clanged on the plate and put his head in his hands, shook it at his food.
“That dog. God, I just don’t know how you guys live with it.”
Mother looked at Matthew. Picked up her wine glass.
“I just want to kick that dog. Light him on fire or something.”
The growling erupted into piercing barks that stung like needles in our ears, a perfect bullseye for the evening’s events.
“It’s just ridiculous – I mean, how have you lived with that for so long? I just don’t understand it.” Swung his head vehemently at the table.
Mother shook her head. The barking continued, louder and shriller. She raised her voice over it, “What else are we going to do? I mean, really Matthew, what is the other option?”
Hands folded over stern brow, Matthew looked up.
He nodded firmly.
“I think you should euthanize him.”
“Well…” She shook her head and her thoughts trickled off, like water splashing down a barren well.
John got up.
“Maybe he’d be better off the leash,” he said.
White fur sprinted around our legs and darted through the kitchen. The barking continued.
“I think he’d be better in a grave, buried under a river. I think he’d be better in the fiery pits of hell.” Matthew let out a sharp laugh and its staccato puncturing had us focused, attuned to a note that continued to ring long after it was played.
“He’s just a dog,” I said.
“What.” Mary’s head whipped around, and chortling laughter sputtered out. Matthew stared critically.
“He’s just a—”
“That thing is a terror. A holy terror,” Matthew said.
From somewhere underneath his anger I heard a bubbling stream of fitful revenge and I looked down to the defiant stance of a caged animal enacting justice, urinating on the leg of Matthew’s chair.
Bodies jumped up, began to shuffle around a confused scene of irritation and crumpled feelings. John towered over Buster, Matthew over John. Mother tried to shoo him away, brush away the crumbs of a meal she didn’t want to eat.
Buster sprinted away, wailing. He circled around the kitchen and came racing back, bounding over Toto as he did. Toto jumped up, nipped at nothing.
The room was askew; a painter’s palate tipped. All the colors dripped into a single muddy puddle and I remembered why I hadn’t wanted to come home for the holidays. Immobile, I watched my family angrily, anxiously, grasp after a nervous ball, oblivious anyway.
“Get him, get him!”
A tangle of people tripped over themselves. Arms lunged but Matthew’s won. He grabbed Buster by the back of the neck, ripped him from the room, threw him into the open space separate from everyone else, leaped after him, clutched him violently between red strained fingers.
“NO! NO NO NO NO NO. YOU STUPID DOG. YOU STUPID STUPID DOG.”
Matthew chucked Buster further into the living room, Mother shrieked in horror, and Mary laughed like it was part of a play and we were all just fumbling through a particularly unforgiving scene.
He found me there, on the curb outside. Mother and John and Mary were having coffee, he said; did I want any?
I shook my head but didn’t look up.
He sat down on the curb next to me. Put his arms around me.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I lost my temper.”
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look up at him. I lit another cigarette.
“Ughhh. Really?” He scoffed. “You know I hate that you smoke.”
I exhaled away from him. “Ya know. I hate that you hate it. But whatchya gonna do?”
He shook his head. I wasn’t looking at him, but I felt it.
All of a sudden, I was overcome with a debilitating sense of sadness, like a mountain of it had been poured on my limbs, cementing me in place. My arms felt weighted, and it took considerable effort to bend my elbow, lift my hand to face: I knew he wouldn’t understand.
We stared in opposite directions for too long, the moments thick with unspoken things.
He sighed, heavily. “Well. Come in when you’re ready. Okay?”
I nodded, but it was a passive action: it meant nothing. He left and, in his absence, a cold wind rushed in, and I knew I hadn’t a choice: the judgements and the myopathy and the passive aggressive quips that characterize family were permanent fixtures. It seems the connection I’d craved doesn’t exist. Do I return to the dinner, swallow my hesitations, and feign intimacy, or do I leave and get drunk somewhere downtown, alone?
The haphazard Christmas lights twinkled in the distance and I fingered the keys to the car in my pocket. Would they even notice?
I stared at the sewer water and wondered what I’d hoped to achieve.
I stood up and crushed the last cigarette under my sneaker. I breathed deeply – painfully – paralyzed by the possibility of leaving. I turned on my heel, let go one last breath, and headed towards the glowing wreath hanging on a door half closed.