Around the Hearth, Dreadfully

Trying my hand at Flash Fiction, 1,500 words to be exact. Enjoy!

Another year, another embarrassment of Christmas riches.  A family blessed one might think. Look closer, however, and you can smell the rot just below the surface. I plaster a smile to my face pretending to delight in this year’s loot.  Funny, this act seems to get harder with each passing year.

Earlier on the drive I could feel my wife growing tense as the city gave way to rolling countryside.  It was a white Christmas.  The twins woke with excitement and tore through their presents under the tree. The puppy, Foxie, was happily confused by all the delicious paper strewn across the living room.

After presents and breakfast we all tumbled outside to play in the freshly fallen snow.  Foxie was astounded, it was his first snowfall.  Liam and Jake screamed with laughter every time he stole one of their mittens and ran circles around them, just daring anyone to try and catch him.  Kristin tried to build a snowman but the snow was so fluffy it didn’t stick very well.  The best she could muster was something of a snow ghost.  A mound of snow with rocks for eyes, twigs for a smile and two sticks for arms. Foxie instantly hated him.

“We should bring dog.” I mentioned casually.

“Absolutely not.” Kristin’s tone left no room for arguing.  I knew she was picturing her mother’s expression as Foxie bounded through her parent’s perfect home. Then there would be older sister Abagail, silently watching, sternly judging our chaos as her own family behaved appropriately. Only Zoe would enjoy Foxie. Sadly, her opinion hardly mattered to the Harts.  The youngest daughter Zoe was breathtakingly beautiful but a semi-reformed hellion and a lesbian.  The Harts had only recently reconciled with her lifestyle and Zoe would likely be on her best behavior. Doubtful she’d upset the applecart just for a few hours amusement with a puppy.

“Will the dog walker be by today?” I asked skeptically.

“Seth? Yes, he has no special plans for the day and was happy to sit with the pup.”

I felt a surge of jealousy for Seth, happily ensconced in our cozy condo while I spent the afternoon with the dreaded in-laws.  But when duty calls, duty calls.  I couldn’t leave my adored wife alone with her family. Besides, someone had to keep the boys from destroying their grandparent’s home. As terrible as they were to Kristin they doted on their grandsons. If Jake and Liam wanted to slide down the bannister, slide they would.  If Jake and Liam wanted to play with their super soakers in the formal living room, they would.  I’m sure if Jake and Liam begged for Foxie to come to dinner Foxie would.  Kristin knew this too but she had to draw the line somewhere.

Kristin had grown up in a lavish Tudor style home in an affluent town about thirty miles outside of Boston.  Her father had been a successful salesman but was on the road quite a bit while she and her sisters were growing up.  Her mother Anne was not up to the task of raising three girls on her own.  Kristin said she barely ever cooked for them, was never supportive of their goals and aspirations, and more than once disappeared for days at a time leaving the girls with an even less capable grandmother.  Kristin once told me that by the time she was ten she realized that she learned all she was going to from her mother.  Oddly, her older sister Abagail had always craved their mother’s approval.  Abagail spent her childhood trying to win her mother’s favor and was always infuriated when Kristin had somehow managed to gain her approval. Kristin, rather than Abagail, had something that Anne considered to be of upmost importance in any daughter – beauty.  Abagail wasn’t homely but she couldn’t hold a candle to Kristin’s natural sparkle, and she hated her younger sister for that.  Ironically, Zoe was easily the prettiest of the three but the ten years that separated Abagail from Zoe essentially removed her from any sibling rivalry.  Being just two years younger than Abagail, Kristin received the brunt of Abagail’s torments. Even now, all these years later they still disliked each other.

“Hello, hello, Merry Christmas!”

There was Anne Hart, greeting all of us as if we were, and always had been, beloved.  I suffered through a hug as did Kristin.  They boys flew at their grandmother and even I marveled at the genuine warmth that radiated off Anne as she fiercely hugged them to her.

“Jackie boy, how are you doing?” Stephen Hart, in all his Christmas finery appeared in the entryway to pepper me with questions on the Patriot’s season.

I dutifully answered Stephen’s questions as I warily watched Kristin politely greet Abagail and her husband Greg.  Greg wasn’t so bad.  At times, he seemed almost as perplexed by the Hart family as was I.  We never actually discussed it though.  I had the distinct feeling that anything said would go straight back to Abagail, and eventually Kristin’s parents.  Who needed the trouble?

“Jessie!” Kristin screeched as she hugged her niece tightly.  For as much as she disliked her sister she loved her niece unconditionally.  Even I had to give credit to Abagail.  For all her obvious faults, she had somehow managed to produce a sweet and loving young lady.  She must take after Greg’s side.

The awkwardness of our arrival was thankfully interrupted Zoe’s entrance.  Her look was subtle and subdued even I gasped at her seemingly innocent, angelic beauty. She saw my double take as she hugged her father and gave me a wicked wink over his shoulder. I looked quickly away to hide my smirk. Zoe had always been fun.

Dinner was a catered affair and the only part of the afternoon I ever enjoyed.  With so much food to eat no one bothered with small talk and we ate with abandon in blessed silence.  After dinner, we gathered around the fireplace in the family room while Stephen and Anne doled out their holiday gifts to us, their captive and seemingly grateful audience.

The generosity the Hart’s show to their family, particularly the grandchildren, cannot be denied.  Kristin says they are trying to buy affection to make up for years of shitty parenting.  Her was dad often absent and usually drunk when he was home.  Her mother was cold and unsentimental but strangely very concerned with outward appearances.  Kristin’s childhood was marked equally by indifference and antagonism, yet the Hart’s always presented the picture-perfect family when in public.  It infuriated Kristin.  When we first met all her friends warned me that Kristin would never get married, so traumatized was she by any thought of domestic life. Luckily, she changed her mind.

Even I had to begrudgingly smile at the boy’s whoops of joy unwrapping their presents.

“iPads!” Zoe cried.  “Mom, they are only five.”

“Mrs. Kelleher says all her grandchildren have them.  There are plenty of educational programs for children their age.”

“Jack and I will look into that,” Kristin said diplomatically as she plucked the electronics from the boys’ grasp.  “They have plenty of other toys to keep them busy while we figure it out.”

“I refuse to let Jessie have electronics,” Abagail cut in.  “I’m sure they make great babysitters for some parents but not for us.”

Jessie groaned.  “I would love an iPad. Nana, did you buy me one too?”

“Oh, you know I would have but your mother insisted that I didn’t.  But don’t you worry dear, I got you something special.” Anne smiled as she presented Jessie with an envelope.

“Tickets to Wicked? In New York?”

“Yes, and we’ll take care of all the travel arrangements for you and your parents.” Stephen added.

“Wo hoo!” Jessie shouted bouncing with joy.

I smiled but caught Kristin’s eye roll. “Buying her affection.” I could almost hear her thoughts.

The rest of the afternoon passed without much drama. After all the gifts were given we stayed an obligatory two hours, trying to think of things to say to these strange creatures. Luckily all Stephen really wanted to discuss was sports so it was easy for me.  Kristin had to deal with listening to both her mother and Abagail pass judgement on the poor souls who lived in town with them. Zoe tried to object but even she fell silent eventually, poisoned by their unending toxicity.

It was dark when we piled in the car to go home.  After promising to visit more often we were happily headed back to our oasis in the city.

The boys fell asleep about twenty minutes into the ride, as content as five year olds could be on a magical Christmas.

“God, I really hate going over there.” Kristin sighed.

“I know, me too.”

“It’s just, they are really good to the boys.”

“I know.”

She reached over and squeezed my hand.  “Well, until next hear then.”

I smiled and kissed her hand.  “Until next year.”








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