The red and green lights strung from the roof flash on and off inconsistently, radiating in the frosted air. A thin layer of snow crunches underfoot as Mom’s Taurus pulled into the driveway.
Cutting the engine, Mom starts talking to herself. “Do I have the pie? Laurie will kill me if I forgot the pie.”
I gesture to the backseat, where dozens of pie tins are carefully saran wrapped.
She smiles at me. “What would I do without you?” Her eyes drop to my necklace, clearing her throat.
I pull the pendant behind the collar of my shirt, hiding the silver five pointed star. My mom sighs.
Christmas with the Maher’s. The front door is thrown open and cousins upon cousins bustle out into the night. Bright white smiles decorate their faces, plastered and pinned perfectly. I hug the ones I’m supposed to and beam right back. I knew the script by now.
Aunt Laurie appears in the threshold. “Dinah!”
My mom, cheeks pink, glances up. Her hair is spilling out of its ponytail and escaping into tiny frizzy ringlets. Flustered, she musters fake dignity.
“Laurie, darling,” she drawls. “It’s been too long! Happy holidays!”
“Merry Christmas to you too, dear!” Laurie winks, pushing her blond hair behind her ears. Several golden bracelets sing each time she moves her hands.
My mom makes it to the door, shuffling in her work boots. “You look lovely.”
Laurie twirls in her retro party dress, dazzling in crimson fabric. “I’m glad you like it!”
Still grinning, Mom undoes her parka and squeezes behind Laurie into the house. Once she’s out of earshot, she runs off on her favorite curse words.
“Rachael!” Aunt Laurie flies for me. Her skinny arms wrap around me awkwardly.
My mom’s watching now. I don’t smile.
“How are you! Look at how beautiful you are!” Everything she says ends in an exclamation point. I wonder if it’s hard to be that perky all the time.
“I’m fine.” I step back. Breathing out smoke, I shiver under my coat.
Her hands wave. “Wonderful, just wonderful! Any boyfriends!”
“That’s not really a priority, right now, Aunt Laurie.”
“Oh, don’t give me that tired old bull your mother keeps feeding you!” She laughs. It echoes like a cackle.
I make my way toward the door, slipping out of Aunt Laurie’s sharp fingers.
My mom appears by my side and gives my hand a quick squeeze. “Two hours. Then we’re out of here.”
“Got it.” I whisper back. And jump into the mouth of the monster.
Relatives line the walls, sipping champagne and laughing politely. The children pirouette through the rooms, running and screaming from their sugar high. Little legs in stained white tights rush past in a blur of a Kmart holiday dress. I angle around a misplaced coffee table to get to the bathroom.
A knock on the thin door. Coughing, “Uh, someone’s in here.”
I push the handle, stepping into a cloud of smoke. Greg’s standing in the shower, with Meghan at his feet, both smoking a joint. I slide the door into the lock and smirk.
Meghan closes her eyes. “Rachael. How are you.”
“I’m doing well.” I pluck the joint from her limp fingers. Her head rolls and she crumples over in a nest of her long brown hair.
Greg blows a stream of smoke out the window. “Well, cousin, light up. ‘Tis the season.”
“Is that what you told Meghan?” I take a drag, staring at her stoned body.
“She was like this before I had anything to do with it. She can’t stay off the red wine.”
I cluck my tongue. Smoke burns my throat, crawling into my nose. Greg leans against the tiled wall, gazing into the sky. He fumbles with the tie around his neck, eyes glazed over. I move for the sink, putting out the joint in the porcelain bowl. Down the drain it goes.
Greg spins a bit, grabbing the shower curtain for support. The plastic drape gives away and they all fall down in a tumbled heap. I snort, glancing in the mirror. Wide eyes stare back, lined with kohl. I run my fingers through my hair, hiding the bright blonde roots. The black hair dye shines unnaturally, greasily, under the bathroom lights.
I reach for the light switches, flipping on the exhaust fan. Coming to his senses, Greg reaches for the can of Lysol Air Freshener on top of the hamper. The flowered perfume fills up the space so face, it was nine square feet of pure noxious gas. Meghan recovers, gagging a little at the smell. Greg flips out of the bathtub, landing with a crash on the bathroom rug. I hand him a tube of Colgate while helping Meghan to her feet. He squeezes a long line of toothpaste into his mouth.
“Disgusting. You sick little man.” I shake my head.
He gargles. “Shut up.” A trail of saliva and minty freshness is spit into the John.
Meghan shakes out her hair, sniffing. She drunkenly struts out of the bathroom but neither of us, Greg and I, care about stopping her.
“Merry Christmas, Rachael.”
“You too, Greg.”
The table is set with the good china when we get to the dining room. The yellow walls seem too happy and the crystal champagne glasses seem too fragile. I sit down fast before I lose my mind.
Aunt Laurie is at the head of the table, Uncle Wes across from her. In two neat rows of twelve, the adolescent and the adults of the Maher family wait for the meal to be served. A eruption of giggles spills from the kids’ table in the next room. Meghan says, much too loudly, “Gosh, I’m hungry.”
Gently clearing her throat, Laurie calls attention. Standing, she raises her glass.
“I’m so glad everyone could join us this year. What a marvelous Christmas it has been. We couldn’t have been more blessed. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-”
My hands stay folded in my lap while everyone crosses themselves. Only Laurie notices. She pauses, but carries on with the prayer. I snap out of my thoughts when food finally reaches my plate.
Chewing on a breadstick, I pick up pieces of conversation.
Aunt Midge is leaning across the table, muttering to Aunt Prue. “If she had only gone to Vegas with him, he wouldn’t have met the stripper.”
“And then, I fell right on my ass!” Edie burst out laughing, holding her boyfriend Tom’s hand.
“Language!” Laurie scolded.
Larry pushed a forkful into his mouth. “Just wait till then send you on a retreat, Greg. That’s when the fun really starts.”
Greg shrugged. “Well, we’re not really making a big deal out of my confirmation. Just inviting friends, family, and people Ma wants to impress.” He looked so young compared to his older brother. Larry grinned.
“Our little soldier for Christ.” Uncle Davis snickers, sipping his water.
I push mashed potatoes around my plate with my knife, shutting down. Aunt Laurie’s eyes narrow.
Larry rolls his eyes. “I remember my confirmation. There was the hottest girl there, remember that Greggy? She-”
“Lawrence, please!” Laurie’s head jerks away from me.
I glance at Mom. Her heads down, engrossed in her salad. We won’t make the two hours.
A hand covers mine. “Rachael, dear.” Aunt Kris. Her eyes soften. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” I show teeth. You can’t be rude to Aunt Kris.
“Are you making your confirmation soon? I’d love to bring linguini with that special sauce I make, you know, the kind you always liked.”
My mom cranes her neck to analyze my face. I need to choose my words. “Well, actually. I’m not confirming.”
Aunt Kris is still smiling. “Really, dear? Why not?”
I squeeze her hand. “I never was baptized. I’m not Catholic.”
She nodded her head, but her eyes were blank. She didn’t understand.
Aunt Laurie’s lips thin. “Rachael, honestly, you can still be baptized. You could go to our church.” Mom buries her head in her hands.
I clear my throat. “Aunt Laurie. I don’t want to be baptized.”
“Don’t let your mother prevent from finding God, Rachael, we have the nicest youth group.”
“My mother, Aunt Laurie, made the right choice. I don’t want to be Catholic. You have your God. I have mine. Please don’t make a big deal out of this.”
Her nails dug into her cloth napkin. “Rachael, you need to open your heart to Jesus. Catholicism is a beautiful religion.”
“It is,” I place my fork down, “The services are lovely. But I have my own beliefs, you know that, and I do not need to be converted.”
I hadn’t realized the table had gotten so quiet. “Your own beliefs, as you call them, involve the devil!”
“I don’t believe in any damn devil, I don’t believe in any damn Hell, and you can damn well leave me alone about it.”
“I will not stand such vulgarity in my house!” The exclamation points were back.
I push back from the table. “Then stop judging others, Aunt Laurie.”
“You’ll burn in Hell, Rachael! Just like your sinful mother!”
“It’s your Hell, you burn in it, you tired old bitch.” I stand up abruptly. Kissing Aunt Kris on the cheek, I murmur happy holidays and leave the room.
I heard the scrape of my mom’s chair as she backed out, disgruntled. Her napkin whips to the floor. “See you next year, everyone.”
Waiting by the fireplace, I stare at the Salvation Army print of Jesus hanging over the mantel. It’s a classic position - looking thoughtful, white robes, the brown beard, praying to His dad. It’s been in Maher family pictures for as long as I can remember.
Mom appears, our coats in hand. “How exciting.”
“Want to go to Denny’s?”
She pulls open the door. “It’s on me.”
I smile and step out into the freezing night air.