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Three couples. A luxury cabin in the woods. A weekend getaway to die for.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Christmas Night 2017
The carcass is splayed in the middle of the table. Carved, flesh torn away, eaten, ribs exposed. The turkey, brown and glistening when it was removed from the oven, is now just a pile of bones. Plates are smeared with gravy, wine glasses empty, stained red. A swath of maroon lipstick mars a white cloth napkin. The lights from the towering Christmas tree blink, manic.
The holiday, in all its glittering, wrapped promise, is over.
And there’s that moment, which Hannah remembers since childhood. After all the weeks of anticipation, the preparation, meals planned and served, gifts purchased, wrapped, torn open, surprises revealed and enjoyed, the inevitable time comes when it’s all done. There are no more presents to give or to get, just the mess to clean up, the dishes to do. When she was little, she always felt this moment, its quiet, its subtle sadness, keenly. Now that she was older, she knew it for what it was – the flow of life. The calm after the storm where you were meant to recalibrate, reset before the onset of the next event – good or bad.
“Too much,” says her mother Sophia, pushing her plate away as if it were the culprit of this excess. “Too much food.”
Sophia is well and truly drunk. Not in a sloppy, word-slurring, falling down sort of way. No. Never that.
A sharpening of her tone. A hardening of her expression. How much has she had? When did she start drinking? Hard to say. She’s rambling now, sitting to the left of Hannah’s father Leo who resides at the head of the Christmas dinner table. Leo smiles indulgently as Sophia goes on.
“That’s the problem with this country, isn’t it? People don’t know when to stop – stop eating, stop buying.”
Hannah feels a slight tension creep into her shoulders. It’s only a matter of time now before Sophia puts out the first barb, or before a casual comment from someone, probably Leo, will ignite her mother’s temper.
Hannah decides to get up and start clearing the plates. Better to keep moving.
“Leave it, sweetie,” says her father, he draws a big hand though his still thick, snow white hair. “Bruce and I will get it. You and Liza did all the work.”
Sophia tugs at her sky blue cashmere wrap with ringed fingers; the color matches her eyes. “I supervised,” chimes in her mom, still light.
Hannah’s mother hadn’t really wanted to host Christmas, mentioned multiple times in different, subtle ways how much work it would be. So Hannah and her sister-in-law Liza did all the shopping, all the early prep work, and all the cooking today to make it easier on Sophia. Now, the meal a success, her mother wants some of the credit.
“We couldn’t have done it without you, Mom.”
Hannah always knows what to say. She’s an expert on navigating this terrain. She earns an adoring smile from her mom, blue eyes slightly rimshot, glistening.
“Your recipes, Mrs. M,” says Liza.
Actually, they’d used recipes from Dad’s side of the family. There was an old bound notebook, full of hand-written recipes for everything from lasagna to tripe, from white clam sauce to eggplant parmesan, from mashed potatoes to the perfect roasted turkey, to standing rib roast. Recipes dad said were collected from his Italian mother and his aunts, recipes from the old country and the new, expanded over time, splattered with decades old stains, pages torn, and creased. All of it tied together with a rubber band. It was a long held family aspiration to enter everything into a document and create a self-published book. But this has never happened, everyone always too busy, and the project forgotten until the holidays rolled around, then forgotten again in the new year.
“That book,” says Liza, still trying. “It’s a treasure.”
Hannah glances at her dad, who is relaxed at the head of the table, wearing his usual patient half-smile, hands folded on his belly. Mom gives Liza a non-commital hum. Liza clears her throat, casts a glance at Hannah. Her sister-in-law can’t win. She should know that.
Liza hasn’t been asked to call Hannah’s mother “mom,” or even to use her first name. Liza has been married to Hannah’s brother Mako for a year and has still not been welcomed by Sophia, not really. It’s all very cordial though. Polite. Until it isn’t. Why Sophia is like this, Hannah has no idea. Liza is lovely and kind, a good wife, a dutiful daughter-in-law. She and her mother haven’t discussed it.
Hannah’s husband Bruce puts a comforting hand on her thigh. She glances over at him, his dark eyes, strong jaw, that smile. It calms her; he calms her. Together they peer at the video monitor on the table between them. Their nine-month-old daughter Gigi sleeps peacefully, a cherub floating on a pink cloud.
“She’s a good sleeper,” says Hannah’s mom, leaning in for a look as she gets up to pour herself another glass of wine. Hannah glances at her dad again, who still wears that pleased but somewhat blank expression. He’s a large man, standing over six feet tall. I have big bones, he likes to say. His doctor wants him to lose twenty pounds. That’s probably not going to happen.
Bruce calls Hannah’s father “The Space Cadet,” which always annoys Hannah more than it should.
He’s not all there. Like, he checks out.
It’s true, even though Hannah doesn’t want it to be. Her dad is loving, present for her – always has been. But he does sort of blank out and drift away when things get hot; even when they don’t. He’s in his own world a lot of the time – on long walks, or zoned out in front of whatever game, the computer.
But you know, Bruce is quick to add, if I were married to your mom, I’d check out, too.
Mako, Hannah’s older brother left the table after he’d finished eating and has noisily fallen asleep on the plush sectional beside the towering Christmas tree, visible in the huge open plan space. An explosive snore draws all their eyes.
Hannah laughs; she’s always been close with her brother, closer than most siblings. They’re friends, confidants. They’ve had each other’s backs as long as she can remember. In fact, she can’t imagine who she’d be without him.
“He’s put on weight,” says Sophia.
Hannah glances at her brother. He looks bigger around the middle maybe, but still fit, virile. He doesn’t look unhealthy. He works too hard, driven by things Hannah doesn’t always understand. He barely sleeps. Eats way too much junk food.
Sophia’s comment is directed towards Liza, Mako’s wife. As if somehow it’s her fault. Liza, a part-time vegan, yoga influencer – whatever that means – is a size zero. Hannah is happy to have dieted and exercised herself to a size 12 after the baby. She’s been bigger. All the people on her father’s side of the family are bigger, as her mother rarely fails to point out. Sophia is so thin that her collar bone looks like a shelf.
Mako has consumed at least twice as much food as everyone else. While Liza has eaten precisely one paper thin slice of turkey, a small helping of Brussel sprouts, no bread, no potatoes, and three glasses of water. Not a drop of alcohol. Not that Hannah was paying attention, or trying to mimic Liza’s choices and portion sizes. Even if she had, it really wouldn’t matter. Hannah would never be a size zero. Which was totally okay.
“He’s under a lot of stress,” says Liza, her shoulders going a little stiff. “He’s a stress eater.”
That was true. Hannah knew the feeling – anger, sadness, frustration, worry and all she wanted were carbs.
“The new game is about to launch and he’s working twenty-four-seven,” Liza continues, glancing over at her husband with a worried frown. “His personal assistant quit without notice. And this is his first day off in weeks.”
“Trina?” asks Hannah. This is news to Hannah. She wonders what happened there though she can probably guess. She looks down at her plate.
“Yes,” says Liza. “Anyway -- good riddance. She had very bad energy.”
Hannah agrees. Trina had always been snippy with her on the phone, a bit frowny when Hannah came into the office. She’d been tall and stunning – not beautiful exactly, but exuding a kind of raw sexual energy. Yeah, thinks Hannah, good riddance. Hannah is going to suggest that her brother hire a male assistant next time.
Mako has also had too much to drink. He’s had five bourbons. Five. Hannah, if she drank five bourbons, would need to be hospitalized. She decides to rise to clear the plates after all. Her father seemed to have forgotten his offer, but Bruce and Liza rise as well to help.
“Maybe if he had a homecooked meal every now and then, he wouldn’t eat so much junk,” says Sophia, an edge to her voice.
There it was. The opening shot. Hannah realized that she was literally holding her breath. She forced herself to release it.
But Liza just offered a polite smile. She was, in many ways, a lot like Hannah’s dad. Even. Slow to anger. Mako, and even Hannah on a bad night, might engage with Sophia, leading to an all-out battle. Which was exactly what Mom wanted; it was sadly the only way she knew how to be intimate. It had taken a couple of years of therapy for Hannah to come to that particular realization.
But Liza just deflected.
“Mako doesn’t like my cooking,” she says, casting an amused glance at Hannah. Hannah feels a rush of gratitude for her sister-in-law. “He likes Taco Bell. That’s his go-to.”
“And yours.” Hannah nudges Bruce. “You two eat like teenagers when you’re working like this.”
Sophia seems amused by the three of them and the moment of ignition passes. They all finish the kitchen while Mako snores on, then gather in the living room. Mako stirs to seated, rubbing at his eyes like a kid. “What did I miss?”
“Only everything,” says Liza.
He drops an arm around her shoulders and she slides into him, looking up. Pure adoration, that’s what Hannah sees. Her brother always inspired that in women. It’s not his looks, though that’s part of it – a kind of boyish beauty, thick lashes, big, strong arms, wavy dark hair that he’s always worn longish. There’s something about her brother that makes girls want to take care of him. Liza loves Mako; Hannah sees that clearly.
“What’s this now?”
Hannah’s dad is behind the tree. This is an old Christmas trick of his. Hiding his presents until the end of the night, after everything else has been opened and you thought there was nothing left. Hannah loves this moment, when she thinks the holiday is over, but then there’s one more surprise.
Leo comes to the sectional with a stack of neatly wrapped boxes, starts looking at labels and handing them out.
“From you, Dad?” asks Hannah.
“No,” he says, glancing at the tag. “From Santa.”
She can’t tell if he’s kidding or not. She’d thought his surprise gift had been cash this year, a thick red envelope he’d handed to each of them with a warm embrace. You’re such a wonderful mother, he said to Hannah. I’m so proud of that and all you’ve done.
Her dad was always proud of her, even though she hadn’t accomplished nearly what she thought she would have by this point in her life. And now there was Gigi.
When they all have their boxes, Dad included, they rip at the red wrapping.
“Oh,” says Hannah, staring at the rainbow helix on the box, the foil embossed lettering.
“Origins,” reads Bruce.
“What is this?” asks Sophia, looking at it with disapproval.
“Huh,” says Mako. “It’s one of those DNA testing kits. Dad, I’m impressed. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be into something like this. Too sci fi.”
Dad shakes his head, offers a light chuckle. “Seriously, guys, this isn’t from me.”
“Then who’s it from?” asks Liza.
They all look around at each other, offering clueless shrugs. Hannah feels a little tingle of unease. Somebody is not being honest. Otherwise, where did these boxes come from?
“It has to be from Mickey,” says Mom, holding up her box and pointing it at Hannah’s brother. Something is going on between them; they’ve been glaring at each other like rival gang members all night. “Believe me. I know when my son is up to his tricks.”
“Mako, Mom,” says Mako, whose given name was, in fact, Michael. Mickey all his life until he went off to college, where he decided he needed to shed his childhood self.
Mako. Like the shark.
“Oh that’s right,” Sophia says. “The name I gave you wasn’t good enough. Like everything else. Never enough.”
She drops the box, bends over to pick it up. Hannah keeps her eyes on Mako. An angry flush is working its way up his neck.
“So,” says Dad, interrupting Mako’s reaction again. “What is this exactly?”
Hannah’s waiting for it but Mako doesn’t blow. Instead, he casts an annoyed look at Mom, then turns to their father.
“It’s a kit. There’ll be some kind of saliva collection vial. You register online, then send it in to this company. And it will give you any number of different reports about yourself – health, ancestry, genetic predispositions, etc. It might even connect you with long lost relatives.”
“Huh,” says her dad, inspecting the box. He seems vaguely interested, but wary. Hannah’s guessing it did not come from him. “That is a little sci fi.”
Sophia blazes a hard stare at Mako, her expression unreadable even to Hannah who knows all her mother’s many moods. “At this age, I assure you I know as much about my family as I care to. Thanks for the gift, Mickey. But I’m not interested.”
She rises unsteadily. Hannah stands to keep her from toppling over.
“I’m fine,” Sophia snaps, grabbing her arm away.
Hannah sits and Bruce takes her hand, gives her an apologetic look. Your family. Wow. Were you switched at birth? That’s what he said the first time she brought him home.
“It’s not from me,” Mako says.
“Whatever you say, son,” says Sophia. “I’m turning in. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”
“It’s not from me,” Mako says again, this time looking at Hannah. “Did you guys do this?”
“It’s not from us,” says Hannah, with a brisk shake of her head.
Everyone looks at Liza, who raises her palms. “Not me. I would hesitate to share my personal data with a corporation like that. Who knows what they’ll use it for? And you guys should think twice about it, too. When did everybody just decide to give their privacy away?”
“Okay,” says Mako impatiently. “Then who is it from? Where did these boxes come from?”
Hannah looks at the gift. The tag has been printed from a label maker, no hand writing to inspect.
No clue from the paper, a glossy red foil. She’d seen rolls and rolls of it at Target.
“Dad, did these come in the mail? Or did someone drop these off?”
Since his retirement, her dad was in charge of the mail – going to them mailbox, bringing in packages. He also did the grocery shopping now, took out the garbage, ran all errands. The hunter-gather.
He lifts his palms. “No, they were not delivered by mail. Someone brought them in and hid them behind the tree. They weren’t there yesterday.”
“Huh,” says Hannah. “Some Christmas intrigue.”
She was trying to keep it light. But it was odd wasn’t it? She didn’t think her brother was lying. She knew they hadn’t brought the gifts. So did someone else have access to the house. Had someone snuck in? That was silly. The only one who broke into your house and left gifts was Santa.
“Doesn’t anyone else find this strange?” asks Hannah.
“Someone’s having fun,” says Bruce, stacking his and Hannah’s together, putting it on their pile of presents.
Mako frowns another moment, then gets up and pours himself a sixth bourbon from the wet bar. If Liza is concerned about Mako’s drinking, it doesn’t show. She looks at her box.
“Sorry, I’m not sure who left this or why. And I don’t want to be rude. But this whole thing is a little creepy. Thanks, but I’m putting mine right in the trash,” she says.
Then she rises and does just that. Hannah hears the garbage open and close in the kitchen. Then Liza returns to the couch. Hannah tries to catch her eyes, but Liza is looking at Mako with a slight frown.
“Good idea,” says Hannah.