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
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
I pull the pendant behind the collar of my
shirt, hiding the silver five pointed star. My mom
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.
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
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
"Rachael!" Aunt Laurie flies for me. Her
skinny arms wrap around me awkwardly.
My mom's watching now. I don't
"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
"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,
"Oh, don't give me that tired old bull
your mother keeps feeding you!" She laughs. It echoes like a
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
"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
Meghan closes her eyes. "Rachael. How are
"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
"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
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
"Disgusting. You sick little man." I shake
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
Larry rolls his eyes. "I remember my
confirmation. There was the hottest girl there, remember that
"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
Aunt Kris is still smiling. "Really, dear?
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
"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
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
"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
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
"Want to go to Denny's?"
She pulls open the door. "It's on
I smile and step out into the freezing