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Thomas felt more than hot in the face. He blinked more than usual and swallowed what saliva he had in his mouth.
“Well, you know Uncle Barren,” Aunt Clare said.
“Um, yes,” Thomas replied settling his eyes upon him. He noticed Uncle Barren’s smile fade and the wrinkles around his eyes parted, revealing the crow’s feet at their edges.
“Are you ok Thomas?” He asked. Thomas nodded then turned to Aunt Clare. He saw that her kind smile was fading as well. She looked at him.
“Oh my dear, yes . . . are you feeling well?” She leaned a bit away from Thomas to broaden her view of his complexion. After Thomas saw her expression digress into a confused and alarmed state, he leaned toward her ear.
“Um, Aunt Clare, may I use the guest room please, I feel that I need to lie down . . . just for a while, I’m sorry,” Thomas whispered. He retracted from her ear and saw her concerning expression subside with a half-smile. She burst a few nods.
“Follow me hun,” she said with a low voice. Before she led on, she turned to the crowd in the dining room and said, “Please everyone, help yourselves to the food,” then she motioned Thomas to follow her into the room where Kristan took Marco.
She was lying on the bed with Marco on the inside of her. They seemed nestled in the comfort of the twin. Kristan turned from Marco with a finger over her lips.
“He’s back asleep,” she said lightly.
Aunt Clare raised her shoulders to her neck. It was a quick and delightful gesture that accompanied a smile. She brought her index finger over this smile and when she lowered that finger, her smile remained. It stretched her cheeks and eyes.
“We don’t have a guest room, but you can share the bed with little Marco,” Aunt Clare said as she tweaked her head toward Thomas.
“What’s going on?” Kristan said. She slowly got up from the bed as to not disturb Marco. She did not take her eyes off him until she was completely off the bed, then she turned to Thomas. He saw the surprise on her face along with a hint of concern.
“Thomas isn’t feeling well,” Aunt Clare said.
“Tommy, you could have told me before we left. It wouldn’t have been a problem to stay at my parent’s house, right Aunt Clare?” Kristan took a step toward him. Thomas bit his lower lip.
“I didn’t want to ruin tonight,” Thomas said over his bitten lip, then released it from his upper teeth, “You were looking forward to this and so was I.” He diverting a glance to Aunt Clare, “I wanted to meet you . . . I’ve only heard great things.” Thomas swept his eyes to-and-fro Kristan and Aunt Clare then settled them on Aunt Clare. “To be here on Christmas and to celebrate it with you, even though you don’t recognize it as a holiday means a lot to me.”
Aunt Clare smiled and gently placed her hand on his shoulder, “Thomas, it’s ok. It’s not that we don’t recognize Christmas as you might, but see it as a relevant time to have everyone together. We care about those who are cared by our own,” she said and gave a coquettish smile to Kristan.
“It’s just for my dad,” Kristan said. She took a step back, putting all of her weight on her farther drawn leg. She stood there with arms crossed staring down at Marco fast asleep. “Christmas reminds him of his childhood before he became indifferent.” She looked at Thomas then back at her Aunt. “Thank you Aunt Clare, even though Thomas isn’t feeling alright.”
“Yes, thank you,” Thomas chimed.
Aunt Clare smiled, “Non-sense. . . I must to get back to everyone,” she said and brought her hands together with the fingers pointing up, then collapsed them and brought her arms down to her waist. “Rest up Thomas; and take your time, because your health comes before anything else.” She turned and carefully walked out the door, shutting it with her hands along the edges of it. Thomas watched her hands on the door meet the threshold and the shadows fell one with the door’s seam.
Kristan walked up to Thomas with her arms reaching toward his jacket. “Let me take your jacket . . . I can’t believe Aunt Clare didn’t take it when you walked in,” she said.
“No, it’s ok. She was busy taking the tray of food form me when I entered the house,” he shook his head, “I don’t mind,” he said to Kristan. She retracted her hands back to her side. Thomas moved closer to the bed where Marco was sleeping and looked down at him. “I can use my jacket as a divider or something,” he said.
“All right,” Kristan responded. She looked at him, which brought Thomas to look at her from Marco. “Just don’t wake him,” she said with a firm finger raised. Thomas smirked.
“Of course,” he said with his tone of voice lowering to a whisper.
Kristan turned to the door and opened it slowly while watching Marco sleep. She slid out not making a noise and to retain the noises of the party from disturbing the sleeping child. Thomas caught her eyes as the door closed and saw the last of her smile slip through the crevasse before the door met the jam again. The knob clicked.
Thomas cocked his head back to Marco with his chin barely touching his shoulder. His eyes slowly diverted from Marco to the small zipped pouch sewn in on the outer bicep of his jacket. He reached for the tag and gently zipped it open, pulling out a small bag of white.
The drive to Kristan’s aunt’s house was a series of twisting roads that followed the natural contours of New York’s mountains. It was dark. The trees that crept up the ridges of the road climbed high. Thomas had to tilt his head down and then up, peering out of the window to see the moon’s glimmer across the landscape.
“Besides the car trouble, how is everything Kristan?” Jan kept her eyes on the winding road as Mark drove at the wheel, weaving the car along the divider like a snake slithering through patches of grass. “How was your first semester?” Jan said.
“It was great!” Kristan exclaimed, putting down her phone. “My final paper for my Public Policies Class was about Yonkers and the city planning for section eight housing,” she leaned forward from the backseat, jutting her head between her parents in the front.
“It’s upsetting how minorities are designated to live in poorly funded neighborhoods based on their income,” she made a gruff noise while shaking her head in disgust, “And it’s impossible for them to move because of that. The areas that are plotted for them are graphed by the kind of people that don’t want the lower income bracket within their neighborhoods.”
She shot back into her seat of the Prius and brought her phone back up to her face. “It makes me mad,” she said. The light from the screen illuminated her side of the car. The light brought Thomas away from peering out into the darkness of the woods. He glanced at Kristan then turned back to the window, watching the trees flicker as Mark drove passed them.
“Ahh, that’s interesting . . . I’m glad you’re getting somewhere with your studies.” Jan turned to look back at her, but Kristan didn’t take her eyes off the screen of her phone. “I remember you saying at the beginning of the semester that you didn’t want to follow through with an MPA, but it seems that you’re finding a passion in it.”
“Yes dear,” Mark looked at her through the rearview mirror, “I’m proud of you; just keep studying and focusing on where this degree will take you. It’s good for your future,” he said.
Kristan just nodded and Jan turned back to face the road that Mark continued to follow with his hands at the safest positions on the wheel. As Mark turned the wheel along the road’s path, Thomas gripped the door to not slide across the seat. He rested his head against the glass and watched the moon’s shine grow brighter through the dispersing fog where the trees became more visible.
Mark stopped the car in a driveway of a small house that looked similar to their house, but this one had a garage attached to it. The garage dug into the hill, which made the house look smaller with only one floor. The front door was open and the stoop leading into the house was followed by a cemented path. This path cut through the grass that surrounded the entire place, like a chalk-line in a sea of black asphalt. Thomas was the last one to exit the car. He followed Mark to the trunk to retrieve the food as Jan and Kristan followed that path into the house.
“Here you go Thomas, make sure you keep it away from your chest,” Mark winked while placing the tin tray down on his forearms, “it shouldn’t be too hot, just wouldn’t want the sauce all over yourself,” he said.
Thomas nodded while watching Jan and Kristan follow the walkway up to the stoop where they entered the house. He heard a burst of welcomes as soon as they did enter and those bursts ended right when Mark shut the Prius’s trunk-door. It latched against the threshold with a thud.
“Let’s not keep them waiting,” Mark said walking passed Thomas and leading on toward the stoop of the opened front door. Thomas kept his eyes on the space between the tin tray and his chest, where the walkway blurred as a continuously moving strip of concrete. He watched it while anticipating the step to appear that would lead him into the house. The light from the living room flooded the concrete, warming it from the moon’s pale glow. The welcomes he heard went from a low chatter to a high ring. Thomas lifted his head to them and immediately the tray was taken.
“You must be Thomas,” Aunt Clare said with the tray in her hands. Her smile stretched ear-to-ear and her teeth brimmed the thin lips that clasped the edges of her gums as she smiled.
Thomas nodded, “yes, I am – um, Aunt Clare,” his voice pitched a decibel higher. He kept looking at her smile then drove his eyes around the living room to find Kristan.
“She’s in the kitchen dear. How about you follow me . . . after I get this tray there, I will introduce you to everyone,” Aunt Clare said.
Thomas smiled as he looked back at her. There was a warm tone in her voice that brought Thomas to feel inseparable – a sense that as long as he was with Aunt Clare, his anxiety about meeting everyone was non-existent.
Thomas did not pay attention to everyone crowding the house as he followed Aunt Clare to the kitchen. They passed the living room through an arch that opened to the dining room, which was adjacent to the kitchen. The dining room table stretched as long as a countertop that separated the kitchen from the dining room. Kristan’s extended family crowded the smorgasbord that was on the table; trays of the food that just what Kristan said there will be at this Christmas dinner.
“Ahh, so this is the gentleman you’ve been forever boasting about Kristan!”
Thomas’s face flushed red and he felt the heat of the food as if he was a part of the meal. He surveyed the expansive dining room until his eyes fell upon the man that acknowledged his presence.
“Um, yes sir . . . I hope what she has said are all good things,” Thomas spoke slowly as to not stutter.
“Oh Barren you’re embarrassing him,” Aunt Clare said as she walked around the table and placed the tray in a spot that seemed just right for it.
“Please Thomas, don’t be embarrassed here because here, you are among good people,” Uncle Barren said. As Aunt Clare backed away from placing the tray on the table, she looked at Thomas and winked.
“Except for him,” she said, lazily pointing a finger at Uncle Barren.
Kristan turned around from the sink in the kitchen after washing her hands. As she grabbed a paper towel from the countertop, she leaned over it and laughed, looking at Uncle Barren, then at Thomas.
“Make yourself at home Tommy,” Kristan said.
Thomas nodded with a smile toward Kristan. He saw Mark enter his line of view from the living room where Thomas’s back was facing. He made his way around the table, greeting those who were sitting at it. He seemed preoccupied, surveying the table for the right appetizer, but Thomas saw in his face that he was genuine while mingling with the family. Mark whispered to one sitting a few chairs away from Uncle Barren and then she leaned sideways. That’s when he went for the hors-d’oeuvres, reaching over as he held his tie against his abdomen.
“Uncle Barren is a musician like you Thomas,” Mark said as he plucked a hors-d’oeuvre form the tray. He smiled after throwing it in his mouth.
“Ah, a fellow musician – what instrument?” Uncle Barren perked up on his seat and leaned forward, placing both elbows on the table where he folded his hands and placed them under his chin. Thomas began to feel flushed with a tint of red slowly revealing itself in the skin on his face.
“Uh, guitar. . .” Thomas nodded. He remained eye-contact with Uncle Barren for only a moment, then diverted his eyes to the table.
“You know,” Uncle Barren raised a finger and shook it toward Thomas, “The acoustic guitar produces the most beautiful melodies; I have mine in the back room. I would love to hear it . . . I’ve been classically trained, but haven’t gotten the time to brush up on it in a while,” he said.
“Uncle Barren is an entrepreneur,” Mark said to Thomas while finishing his hors-d’oeuvre. He then turned toward Uncle Barren. “How are your properties in Florida?”
“Could not be any better, Clare and I are looking forward to an early retirement in Key West.” Uncle Barren sat back in his chair. “You know Thomas, it’s a real shame what happened to those unfortunate people down their when Sandy hit; but, with great strife comes great opportunity,” he lifted his finger again, “remember that Thomas,” he said.
Clare walked up behind him and bent over his shoulder, kissing him on the cheek. She retracted just a few inches and smiled, “You invested to rebuild their homes and give them a second chance. You earned it my dear,” she said.
Uncle Barren smiled back at her. “We both did sweetie,” he said following a short kiss on her lips. Thomas watched them revel in retirement during that moment. He felt sweat beads perspire under his shirt; around his neck and armpits. Nausea crept over him.
A woman with a child was walking up behind Uncle Barren from one of the back rooms. Thomas saw her over his bald head as she walked toward the table and stopping at Uncle Barren’s side. Kristan screeched as if seeing a puppy burst out of a gift-wrapped box.
“Marco! O my god you grew so much since the last time I saw you!” Kristan lunged backward off the countertop and hurriedly walked around to greet the child in the woman’s arms.
“What have you been feeding him Meeka?!” Kristan said as she approached Marco. He was burying his head into Meeka’s shoulder and neck. Thomas watched Kristan’s eyes light up as she took Marco off Meeka’s cradled arms. He just smiled while standing with her family.
“Hahaha, He just woke up from a nap and wanted to say hi to everyone,” Meeka said.
Jan walked over to Kristan now holding Marco. “Hello my little angel,” she said. Marco nestled his head into Kristan’s bosom and shut his eyes.
“Aw, he wants to go back to sleep . . . Marco?” Jan gently pushed her head near Marco, close to Kristan’s chest, “Marco . . .” Kristan then drew away from Jan by twisting her hips in the opposite direction of where her mother was standing.
“Mommy, you’re too close to him,” Kristan said while looking down at Marco.
“Oh Kristan, you’re being more childish right now than little Marco,” Jan moved closer to Marco, stretching a finger toward his nose, but Kristan drew further away. She whispered something to Marco, which caused Jan to walk away and sit down at the table. Meeka followed Jan and leaned over her shoulder, but then Jan just shook her head and waved her hand. Thomas watched Kristan walk back into Marco’s room, but as Thomas started to follow her Aunt Clare intercepted Thomas and grabbed his arm. She turned him toward everyone.
“Ahh now that everyone his here, I would like to introduce everyone to Thomas,” Aunt Clare looked at Thomas, “Don’t be so nervous dear,” she said and shook his arm in a heartwarming way that brought Thomas to smile and nod. He looked around the dining room trying to not make eye contact with anyone. After one full rotation, he started to burn up with his skin flushing red. The faces of the dining room began to reflect concern.
Kristen’s parent’s house was small and it rested on a 45-degree angle along the road that fed into the downtown district of Cold Spring. An old facility was behind the house that stored privately owned boats during the winter. It was right on the cusp of the Hudson River and beyond that was the great landscape of upper state New York; flush and beautiful with mountainous greenery as far as the eye could see. When Thomas and Kristen arrived, her father was outside waiting to greet them and to speak with the tow-truck driver.
“There’s my daddy!” Kristen said. She saw that the driveway was empty and after seeing her father direct the driver to park in the driveway next to the house, Kristen turned to Dave. “You can park in the driveway,” she said while pointing at it. Her hand crossed Thomas’s line of view. He moved away from it slightly while digging into his pocket. Dave just nodded as Kristen brought her hand down.
After Dave parked the tow-truck, Kristen leaned into the passenger door and opened it. “Come on Thomas,” she said tugging at his coat sleeve.
“Ok, hold on,” Thomas turned toward Dave, but he was already out of the truck’s cab walking toward Kristen’s father.
“What are you waiting for,” Kristen said. Thomas just shook his head and followed her out of the cab.
“Hey Kristen, are you ok? You know, you have to make sure that everything is ok with the car before you take it for an extensive drive.” Her father looked at Thomas, “You brought her back in one piece though Thomas,” he said and smiled.
“Hey Mark,” Thomas smiled back.
Dave was walking back to the truck and waved to Thomas and Kristen. “Have a Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Hey Dave, wait,” Thomas jumped into a jog and started to dig into his pocket again. “Merry Christmas,” Thomas handed Dave a fifty dollar bill that landed right into his palm.
“Hey, thanks man,” he said and shook his hand. Thomas nodded and then turned back to Mark and Kristen. He saw the two at the end of a hug.
“How about you two get inside while Dave takes care of the car,” Mark said, “and go say hi to mommy Kristen; she’s been worried.”
“Ok, thanks daddy,” Kristen pecked him on the cheek and motioned Thomas to follow her. Thomas paused, then nodded.
“Ok,” he said, “Thanks Mark.”
Mark smiled and walked toward Dave while Thomas and Kristen walked up the driveway toward the back of the house.
The backyard faced the Hudson and it would have been a nice view if it wasn’t for the boat storage facility, yet the scenery overcame the eyesore and it was equally significant. Thomas followed Kristen up the back porch steps that led to a patio which extended along the backside of the house. He saw the white wooden rocking chairs mesh with the mint candy green color of the house’s siding. Small tables were between each and there were three of them. He reached the top of the stairs where he saw at the end of the porch the grill fired up, smoking from its tiny stack. The smoke flowed with a dance that crept through the air into the scenery that laid before him. He turned with the smoke and took a deep breath.
“Hey Mommy!” Kristen said as he heard her enter the house.
The door’s spring stretched, which snapped the screen door shut. The slam startled Thomas followed by Kristen’s mother’s voice.
“You finally made it, is everything ok?” Thomas heard her say. The smoke continued to lift into the air and the rays from the sun faded through them. Thomas turned away from the fading smoke and sun to enter the kitchen from the back porch.
“Thomas, what happened?” Kristen’s mother said as he guided the screen door closed.
“Hey Jan,” Thomas saw that she was cutting avocados on a cutting board.
“Come in here and help me with this guacamole Thomas and tell me what happened,” She didn’t take her eyes off of the cutting board with the avocados almost entirely sliced.
Thomas passed Kristen as she was on her toes reaching for a glass that was in one of the cabinets. As he passed her to squeeze by the tight space of the narrow kitchen, he caressed her waist and nearly touched the sink’s counter with his thigh on the other side.
“Hey bae,” she said and smiled.
“Bae?” Jan’s voice didn’t elevate in tone but sustained the inquisitive pitch that she conveyed with her first question.
“Short for babe mommy,” Kristen said as she brought down a glass and placed it on the counter. Jan paused cutting the avocados and looked at Thomas as he cleared away from Kristen.
“Is that what you call her during sex Thomas?” She asked him. Her eyes peered over the spider trim of her glasses and she didn’t smile; however, Thomas did to relief the awkward tension brewing inside of him.
“Oh mommy, stop it,” Kristen shuffled to the fridge and placed the glass under the water dispenser. Thomas heard the cup fill as Jan handed the knife to him.
“Finish cutting these and tell me about the car,” she moved to where Kristen was when she was grabbing the cup out of the cabinet and leaned against the counter facing Thomas.
“Well,” Thomas cleared his throat, “it was the engine coolant. I saw that the valve was spliced at the tip and . . .”
Jan started to chuckle, “Spliced at the tip aye,” she said playfully slapping Thomas as he cut the avocado. Thomas couldn’t help but blush and nodded.
“hahaha, stop mommy, you’re embarrassing him,” Kristen took a sip from her cup and stepped over to Thomas as he cut. She grabbed his cheek and giggled.
“Yeah, we had to pull over to figure that out and that was after the engine was smoking,” he said, then looked up at Kristen and winked.
“Well, that’s good you two lovebirds made it back. Thomas could you finish the guacamole, Mark can help you . . . I’ll be in the other room,” Jan said as she started to exit the kitchen while continuing to talk, “I want to finish this piece that I am learning on the piano,” her voice faded as she walked down the hallway and into that other room. It wasn’t long until Thomas heard it playing a tune.
The screen door opened and Thomas looked up.
“Ah she’s got you working in the kitchen I see,” Mark said. Thomas cracked a smile as he watched him approach over Kristen’s shoulder. Kristen turned to her father while sipping on her glass of water.
“Mommy said to help him,” she said over the glass’s lip.
“Mark,” the piano in the other room stopped playing, “help Thomas, would you,” Jan’s voice bounced off the hallway’s walls before ricocheting into the condensed kitchen.
“Yes-yes-yes,” Mark said as he half turned his head toward the hallway. He passed Kristen walking over to Thomas. “Don’t worry about this Thomas, you two should bring your stuff upstairs and get ready to leave,” he said. Kristen looked at her watch.
“Yeah, we really should,” she said.
They exited the kitchen, passing the living room that opened toward the staircase. The piano stopped playing.
“That was fast,” Thomas heard Jan say. Thomas leaned into the living room while Kristen walked up the stairs.
“Mark said he would finish it, we actually have to get ready,” Thomas said. Jan didn’t take her eyes off the sheet music displayed in front of her.
“What time is it?” she said.
“Close to six,” Mark said from the kitchen. Thomas turned his head down the hallway, then back at Jan.
“Oh dear,” Jan said. She bolted up from the piano, closing the sheet music and walked toward Thomas. She patted him on the shoulder. “Get upstairs and help Kristen, We’ll pack the food – Mark, get the tinfoil out!”