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!”
The car broke down just outside of White Plains, New York. There was something wrong with the radiator valve because smoke started to steam up from underneath the hood. Thomas had to pull over into a mall parking lot before the smoke could proliferate and obstruct his view. Kristen was asleep until he had stopped. After he reached under the wheel to unlock the hood he opened the car door and Kristen woke up.
“What the hell is going on?” She yelled. Thomas heard her voice cut off when the door met the door-jam as he closed it. He looked at her through the windshield while pointing to the smoke.
“It just started smoking out of nowhere . . .” he waved the smoke away from his face. Kristen exited the car, swinging her jacket across her back and jutting her arms through the sleeves.
“I fall asleep for,” she glanced at her watch, “almost thirty minutes . . . we are going to miss the lunch.” She threw her head back and gasped from a surge of stress. Thomas felt the stress too.
“Relax,” he said. “There is still the dinner.” He lifted the hood above his head and swung the spoke in place to hold it there. The engine was exposed after a large gust of smoke exhumed from the radiator.
“Ugh,” Kristen stepped back coughing, “what do you think it is?”
“I think it’s the radiator coolant valve because I don’t hear the engine giving out.” Thomas leaned around the smoke and peaked at the radiator, “yes, it’s the valve,” he said. It’s not connected to the system.”
Thomas saw the tiny tube hanging off the cooling system. He reached in to inspect the end of the tube.
“The end is split,” he said and lightly tossed the tube back into the front internals of the car. Thomas looked at the parking lot’s asphalt and bit his lip, thinking. He turned to Kristen, “You know I can call my buddy Rich, he’s a mechanic . . . uh, I’m sure . . .”
“I’ll call my dad,” Kristen interjected. She brought her phone out and up against her ear. Thomas’s words drew to a closed silence. He just watched the smoke continuing up into the atmosphere as Kristen looked around the parking lot.
“Wow, there’s no one here,” she said.
“It’s Christmas,” Thomas replied, but Kristen didn’t acknowledge him.
“Daddy!” She practically screamed into the phone.
Thomas winced a bit from her abrupt change in attitude. It seemed superficial to him. He ignored the subtlety and leaned into the radiator again, fanning what was left of the smoke coming out from it.
“We have triple A,” Kristen’s voice was confirming, “Ok . . . Ok, love you too.”
Kristen hung up the phone, placing it in the pocket of her jacket as she turned to Thomas.
“My daddy called triple A – he’s going to take care of it,” she said. Thomas met her glance after he surveyed the parking lot again, biting his lower lip while nodding. His eyes fell off from hers and back towards the asphalt.
“Ok,” he said.
“Let’s wait in the car – it’s cold out here,” Kristen wrapped her arms around herself and pranced to the car’s passenger side. She opened the door and slid right into the seat where she made herself comfortable. Thomas shuffled his feet to the driver’s door and got in. The door clanked against the metal of the rest of the car like a chain hitting cement, falling from a lofty height. He sighed.
“I’m sorry Kristen,” Thomas said.
“Why, this is not your fault,” she turned toward him. The fur lining her hood covered a portion of her face, but both her eyes were visible. “It’s my mother’s if you really think about it,” she smiled, “I told her and my dad not to buy this car for me; it’s a clunker – cheap yes – but it’s gonna have some problems.”
Thomas subtly shook his head and shared in her smile by smiling himself. “Well, yes I know this is not directly my fault, but I am just saying that I am sorry that you missed your Christmas lunch with your family.” He said.
“Eh, my dad will get over it, he’s practical like that and my mom really doesn’t care; it’s more of a thing for my dad.” Kristen moved the coat away from her face a bit and Thomas saw her lips. She moved the hair away from her eyes and Thomas saw them too, more clearly.
“Plus,” she continued, “my dad didn’t seem upset at all over the phone; he was just glad that I was safe.”
“Thomas nodded and smiled.
“Yeah,” he said and looked out into the empty parking lot, “I haven’t even called my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas.”
“Why don’t you just call them?” Kristen said.
“Meh, I don’t know,” Thomas shook his head, dismissing the suggestion.
“Well, I think you should, but that’s your choice,” Kristen shifted around in her seat and leaned it back, then took a deep breath. Thomas followed the air exiting her mouth. It started to get colder in the car.
“When is this tow-truck coming?” Kristen said. Thomas just shook his head. He pulled out his phone and it read 1:45pm.
“What’s for dinner anyway?” he asked.
Kristen kept her eyes on the ceiling of the car. Her eyes glittered in the sunlight that streamed through the windshield as she spoke. “It’s going to be a lot of stuff; mashed potatoes, stuffed shells, chicken and steak. My aunt does this thing with the chicken where she marinates it in this special sauce that’s sweet.”
“Which aunt?” Thomas said. Kristen moved her eyes toward him and the glittering reflection stopped, but he still watched the color of her eyes absorb the sun.
“Well, she’s not really my aunt, but has known my mom for years. They taught at the same school together before my mom went to get her masters.” Kristen turned again toward the ceiling.
“Oh,” Thomas moved away from leaning toward her and rested his back against the driver’s chair.
“You’ll love her; she’s really into that whole oneness thing and holistic medicines.” She smiled and turned back to Thomas. “Like those self-help video’s you listen to,” she laughed.
“Right, hahaha; hey, don’t knock that stuff. It helps when I can’t find anything else to help me relax,” he said.
“Hey, you got me to relax,” she said with a wink.
“Ha, well how about right now aye?” Thomas joked.
A horn rung as loud as a gong behind them just before Kristen could say anything. It was the tow-truck. It rolled up in front of them and stopped with its red lights illuminating the inside of Kristen’s car. The driver stepped out as soon as those red lights flashed to a dull vibrancy. Kristen and Thomas watched the driver walk up to the car.
“Let’s go meet him,” Thomas said. They both exited the car and Thomas, with his hand extended, greeted the driver.
“Hey, I’m Dave. I’m sorry for taking the time that it did to get here,” he said, shaking Thomas’s hand.
“No, please we are thankful you came out on Christmas,” Thomas said, “This is Kristen.”
“How do you do,” Dave said and shook her hand.
“You spoke with my father ,” Kristen said.
“Well, no I got a call from up top,” he pointed his finger up, “and I took it hoping that it’s going to be the last one for the day.” He exchanged glances with Thomas and then back to Kristen. “Let’s get in the cab, it’s warmer in there.”
Dave led the way to the passenger side of the rig and opened the door. Thomas looked at Kristen briefly, then hopped in first. It was a single bench in the cabin and Thomas received the hint to take the middle. After Kristen hopped in, Dave shut the door and walked around to enter the cabin from the driver’s side.
“So, where y’all headed,” he said as he shut the door and turned the heat setting to high.
“Cold Spring, New York; just outside of Poughkeepsie,” Kristen was leaning out in front of Thomas. Thomas just nodded while staring out of the grand windshield.
“Oh my, well ok,” Dave said, leaning into the wheel and turning his head from Kristen to the open parking lot. “Buckle up; we’ll be there soon enough.” Dave exited the cab and began hitching the car to the tow-truck.
Thomas walked down the Victorian steps with his chin into his chest and his hands deep into his pockets. He had put his jacket on right before taking that first step down the stoop. When his feet met the sidewalk, the brisk air met his face and he shuttered from its abrupt kiss. It made his skin shiver with goose bumps and they traveled all the way to the tail end of his spine. They went away as soon as he reached the corner of the block.
He stared at the curb and slid his hand across from his front pocket to his back one, reaching for his wallet and drawing it out. He cracked the leather lips open just enough to see that he had no money and realized that he had spent the last of it on the cigarettes the night before. He soon regretted throwing the rest out, but he did not need that habit of smoking to reemerge into his life. He shook the thought off and headed in the direction of the bus station.
All that was on his mind were the previous events that were discussed last night during dinner and how each topic drained him to the point of requesting the guest room. That wasn’t the first time he had done that.
“We’re going to be late Thomas,” Kristen said. She was by the door yelling up the stairs. She could hear Thomas in the bathroom and without warning, its door slammed open.
“I know, I just need to get changed,” he yelled from the upstairs hallway. Kristen was looking up the stairs and saw the steam pluming from the bathroom and creeping over the banister. They disappeared before coiling over to the railing of the stairs.
“How many times have I told you; you need to time yourself in the shower!”Thomas heard that her voice was more instructive than irritated, and he knew that it wouldn’t be that way for very long.
“I know, I know – 5 minutes,” he said walking through the steam and into the bedroom at the top of the stairs. He didn’t look down the stairs where Kristen was waiting, but he felt her angry stare seeping into his back.
“I told my parents we will be there by 11 – you know that it won’t take an hour to get there because of traffic!” Kristen said. Thomas just shut the bedroom door behind him and started to get changed. “I’ll be in the car,” he heard her say through the door.
“Alright,” he said and his voice carried through the door as he searched in the closet for a suit to wear. His hand landed on a grey satin blazer with the pants folded and hung inside of it from the hanger. He threw it on and ran down the stairs to met Kristen in the car.
His shoes clapped down their apartment steps after he had closed and locked the front door. He arrived at the car with Kristen in the passenger seat. She looked at him through the window and motioned him to go around to the driver’s side. He wrapped around the car and opened the door, sliding into the driver’s seat with his head tucking down into the car.
“You know to take route 30 onto 295,” Kristen said as she kept her eyes forward. Thomas just nodded and went to turn the key that was in the ignition. He cranked it and the engine fluttered. “The car’s already on Tom!” She shouted.
“Well shit,” he said. Thomas sighed as he put the car into drive and then pressed on the pedal.
“I can’t believe you,” Kristen said, “It’s like you don’t even care.” Her eyes began to water and Thomas sensed her voice peak into a higher pitch with the back of her throat gripping the far back of her tongue.
“What are you talking about; I do care,” he said.
“You seem like you don’t,” Kristen said, “I woke you up this morning – what did you do – go back to sleep?!”
“I just lost track of time,” Thomas said. He was hunched at the wheel, holding it with one hand at 12 and the other at his stomach. Kristen looked down at his other hand.
“Don’t tell me you’re sick on Christmas,” she said.
“It’s just something I ate,” Thomas said and continued to hunch further into the wheel as he drove.
“What you do mean? We had chicken and rice last night; that shouldn’t have upset your stomach?” Kristen leaned her head out and faced him.
“Nah, the pain’s only minor. This happens when I am stressed,” he said.
“No, don’t do that Tom,” Thomas heard her voice slip into a mild tone of hysteria, “I am still angry at you and if we miss this dinner . . . I wasn’t with my family for Thanksgiving and I want to be with them for Christmas.”
Thomas looked over and she turned her face to the passenger window. She brought her hand up to her eyes and wiped both cheeks.
“We’ll get there,” Thomas said as he accelerated, still hunched over.
The road narrowed off from the suburban sprawl and poured onto the causeway that fed into Camden. He accelerated on this causeway.
“Don’t go too fast, you’ll miss the entrance,” Kristen peered over the dashboard, ‘it comes up sooner than you think,” she said.
“I’ve taken it many times, I know to look for the Applebee’s then it’s the second bend on the right,” Thomas said.
“Yeah well, you missed it last time,” Kristen said shooting a glare at him. Thomas only smiled. He began to breathe heavily while still hunched over.
“Do you want me to drive?” Kristen said. She seemed to become concerned.
“Nah, it will pass,” Thomas said. He kept his eyes on the road and before the pain did pass, he made the entrance without another word about it.
The pain in his gut came in waves. It struck like steam from a hot iron that was pressing up against the insides of his guts. The scenery helped keep his mind off these undulating spasms until the trees that lined the turnpike wore thin. He and Kristen had cleared the southern part of New Jersey.
“Let’s listen to a podcast,” Kristen raised her phone’s screen closer to her face, searching the app for a channel.
“Sure,” Thomas said.
“OOO,” Kristen brought her phone down into her lap as she squeezed her thighs together. “I know just the one,” she said, “I started listening to it last week; it’s called Myths and Legends.” Thomas glanced at her and took part in her excitement with just a smile.
“Myths and Legends . . . about what,” he asked.
“Well, the last one I listened to was about a doll that haunted a family for generations,” Kristen said.
“Whaaa,” Thomas’s voice sustained a monotone pitch and Kristen took him as sincere.
“Yeah, the family believed the doll to be alive and kept it on a chair up in the attic.” Kristen kept searching through her phone, “if only I can find it . . . here it is,” her eyes lit up.
“Wait, why not just destroy the doll?” Thomas said.
“The family, why didn’t they just destroy the doll,” Thomas said.
“Because the doll possessed the family; why would the doll want to destroy itself,” Kristen had her phone in her hand as if it was part of her arm. She raised both hands toward the windshield in a gesture that implied his response lacking in common sense.
“Sure why didn’t I think of that,” Thomas said and the pain in his gut came back. He winced at the pain, but Kristen didn’t notice. She just played the podcast.
The guest room was small with only a bed and a dresser against the wall that shared the doorway. There was a mirror above this dresser that expanded the room’s dimensions a bit, but mostly just reflected the sole window that had blinds draped over it, collecting dust. As soon as Thomas entered the room, he was steps away from the foot of the bed and with a slight glance to his left; he naturally turned toward the mirror to see his reflection. He saw that the sleepless nights were growing on him, represented by his drawn eyes and slouching posture. The couch downstairs, oddly enough, supplemented enough sleep for him to sustain standing, but that was all. He felt the sleep dawn on him like a pendulum’s last swing, right before severing the gut’s tissue and like the dark purpled blood that expels from such a cut, he saw that same color underneath his eyes. He stared into this color as his pupils dilated and when he walked closer to the mirror, the dark purple blotched to a frozen blur. He then drew his eyes from this directly to his pupils. A reflective reflection on his life was found within those pupils; how they posed at the center of the red-veined sclera. His eyes pulsated and the back of them hurt. He rubbed them again and again and a heat wave crawled up his back and over his shoulders, so he took his shirt off and stepped backwards, crashing into the bed.
He stared at the ceiling in utter silence. It was that kind of silence he found himself comfortable in with no one wondering what was on his mind but himself; a void that he constantly strived to control, and at times he did and those were the times that he could fall asleep.
“It doesn’t take that long does it?” Thomas said watching Darren. Darren had a lighter underneath a spoon and they both were watching the heroin fused with the water, waiting for it to boil.
“Nah, a minute or two,” Darren didn’t take his eyes off the spoon and Thomas, gripping his knees toward his legs as he sat against the motel wall next to Darren, darted his eyes off the spoon and onto Darren, then back on the spoon.
“Are you sure it’s ok to take . . . I heard dealers lace it with rat poison,” Thomas said while scratching his nose against his shirt sleeve. His arms were crossed around his shins.
“Chill man, this guy’s legit,” Darren glanced at Thomas while still holding the spoon above the flame, “besides, that shit’s in cigs too . . . don’t worry about it,” he said and the lighter went out. Thomas watched him flick it again and again. It sparked on the third flick and Thomas winced at the spoon as soon as the bottom of it started to blacken from the heat.
Thomas woke up with his clothes still on and his head jammed with reflections of his dream. It blackened out when he slipped into the deeper portion of his paralysis under the vague impression that he was being watched; expected to come back down to the dinner table only minutes after he had left George and Kristen, but it was morning now and that paranoia carried over into the next day.
He turned toward the edge of the bed to position himself up and after scratching his eyes clean from sleep, he listened to the sounds of the house and nothing came from inside its walls that caused him to panic or to continue sleeping. He stood up and went downstairs.
The creaks in the wood were amplified for some reason, which caused him to carefully step down each stair with a keen alertness. The first thing Thomas noticed was that the dinner table was wiped clean, not even the white tablecloth blanketed its surface. Instead, the only change of scenery was a white post-it note on the table’s surface that immediately caught his eye as he continued down the stairs. He almost slipped down the final step that landed him to the first floor when he realized what it may read and he didn’t take his eyes off it as he walked closer to it, all the while feeling the thrill of almost falling dissipate from within his chest. When his eyes landed Kristen’s hand writing, the thrill was gone and his chest remained still. Lock the door when you leave, was all that it read.
Thomas drew his eyes off the note and onto the door, seeing that George’s jacket was gone as well as Kristen’s near its threshold, he deduced that they left for work earlier in the morning and then he naturally caught a glimpse of the clock by the window. It was 11:45.
Thomas walked toward the couch and grabbed his jacket, slung it over his shoulder and walked toward the door. He didn’t even take a gander at the place before he opened the door to leave. He shut the door only to open it again, slightly this time, and reached around for the inside knob’s lock. He felt it and twisted it and then shut the door once more.
Thomas descended the steps to see that Kristen and George were sitting at the table. Kristen was at the head of the table closest to the stairs and when George spoke to Thomas, she turned around.
“The steaks shouldn’t take much longer,” George said and Thomas nodded. He didn’t smell anything cooking and made a curious face, which Kristen picked up on.
“They’re on the grill just outside,” she said and turned back to face George. They both were sipping on a red wine that Thomas didn’t want any of, nor did they offer. He just walked down to the table and sat between them.
“Thanks for washing these Kristen,” he said while looking at her and she curved an empty smile across her face, then took a sip from her glass and placed it down again at the left of her plate.
“Thomas, what happened again? You said that some drunk at the bus station came up to you and vomited all over your leg,” George’s tone was less serious and carried a subtle charisma with it.
“Well that’s the bare bones of it, yes,” Thomas recognized his tone as skeptical, but did not acknowledge it, “but he came up to the only bench in the waiting area and shared it with me. He was nicely dressed and around my age,” Thomas’s eyes scattered across the dining room table as if he was looking for something, “he was pretty drunk and started to complain to me about the sharks . . . flyers game,” Thomas’s eyes flew to George as George quickly interrupted him.
“Ahh yes, Kristen,” he said looking at her, “how was the game last night?” Thomas averted his eyes to her and she exchanged glances with him before settling her eyes on George.
“It was fun . . . nice to know that I still bleed orange,” she said and grabbed her glass. She threw the remainder of the wine that was in it down her throat, placed the glass carefully down on the table and repeated that half-smile. George rested his back against his chair and smirked.
“I heard that they lost, ahhh brings me back to our college days,” George turned to Thomas and smiled and let out a heavy breath, “I’m going to check on the steaks; I like them still bleeding, you know?”
He pushed his chair out from underneath him and started to walk into the kitchen, toward the door that led to the back patio. Thomas watched him leave the dining room and then rested his eyes upon Kristen. He saw her smile at George as he passed her to enter the kitchen and when George returned the smile with his own, Thomas continued to see their dynamic transpire. Kristen followed George with that smile fading into an attentive stare until Thomas heard the backdoor shut, then she swiftly turned that stare to Thomas.
“I can sense your concern Thomas; just let it go,” Kristen said. Her eyes did not let up. They seemed distant from the person he used to know and a striking sensation of fear surged throughout his veins. The feeling of being interloped solidified within him and his anxiety began to grow. It went beyond that lazy smile.
“The flyers game,” he said and it came out like an automated voice.
Kristen kept her eyes rigid as they were framed within her eyelids and her pupils coldly pinned in the center, reflecting the low-dimmed light from the chandelier. He almost lost himself and what he was about to say next while staring into them, but then he noticed her wince and his contemplation returned. The skin that revolved around her eyes was like ripples in a calming lake, caused by a disturbance of a pebble thrown through the glassy surface. She nodded.
The back door slammed open with George entering into the kitchen. It spooked Thomas and Kristen just looked back over into the kitchen.
“How do they look honey; they smell wonderful,” she said and George appeared into the dining room with a studious face peering down at the plate of steaks he was holding, coming into the dining room like a waiter with a rag slung over his shoulder. He looked up at Kristen and smiled, then at Thomas.
“They’re bleeding, just the way I like it,” George said. He placed the steaks on the table and reached for the wine before sitting down. “More wine dear,” he said holding the bottle toward her. Kristen raised her glass with a nod and he poured it until it almost trickled over the rim of her glass, then he brought the nozzle over his own and poured. Thomas watched the red wine glisten against the dull light of the chandelier as it exited the bottle and for a reason unknown to him, he tasted his heart beating right up into his throat.
“Forgive us for drinking in front of you Thomas, I hope it’s not a problem,” George turned the bottle a quarter, then up as if catching the final drop just before it had a chance to land on the fine white table cloth. Thomas waved his hand.
“No, please,” he said. He slightly shook his head in accordance with his hand gesture and then coughed.
“Oh forgive me Thomas,” George caught himself before he sat down and it seemed that he almost stumbled back into the chair, “Allow me to get you some water,” he said walking back into the kitchen.
“He’s fine George,” Kristen said, slightly raising her voice, “he didn’t ask.” She glared back at Thomas and the insecurity of his presence among them steadily increased. He fought it with a smile, but it dulled every point of his senses and that smile was just as devoid of intent as his auditory reception. George’s response to Kristen became white noise and he became the void in which it existed.
It wasn’t long until George returned with the cup of water and placed it to the right side of Thomas. The base of the glass clanged against the polished table where the white cloth buffered the sound. Thomas blinked and averted his eyes to the meniscus.
“Thanks,” he said and wrapped his fingers around the glass before the meniscus settled. He then drew the glass up to his lips and cradled it back with his head shifting toward the ceiling and his throat cleared when the water dribbled down passed his tongue. His gulps drowned out the initiating conversation between George and Kristen and he started to listen to it when he drew the glass away from his lips, down back on the table.
“So, how’s Corey,” George said while cutting through his steak.
“She’s doing well,” Kristen said with a piece of steak pitched on her fork and she was about to grab it off with her mouth.
Thomas watched her bite it as soon as she answered George. She smiled at him just before she started chewing and that smile was as sharp as the knife that George used to cut his own steak. It stopped in the heart of the steak and screeched the porcelain plate, which caused Thomas to dart his eyes toward it. He watched the blood seep through the succulent pink center of that steak and pore over to its outer burnt ridges.
“Thomas, I don’t think you ever met Corey,” George said while he finished cutting through the rough meat.
“Corey?” Thomas didn’t take his eyes off George’s steak until his question rolled off his tongue and when it did, he slowly looked up to George, meeting him eye-to-eye.
“She graduated with us and moved out here right afterward,” he said.
“Ah,” Thomas made a reflective pause, “yeah-yeah Corey,” he said with profound conviction and even though it wasn’t enough for himself to remember Corey, it was enough for Kristen and George to not question him about her any further.
They ate in silence with the lights dimmed to a serene humdrum and the echoes from their forks and knives hitting the plates, dicing the steaks and with the monotonous chewing in between, it drew Thomas to blink profusely.
“Hey, uh George,” Thomas said, cutting through the silence, “is it ok if I lie down?”
“Well, yeah . . .” he said and Kristen dropped her knife. She looked at Thomas as George looked at her. Thomas swung his head toward her and as they both faced her, Thomas was the only one that sensed the same feeling he had when he asked about the flyers game. It was his anxiety and it grew when that knife clanged against the plate like a strike of a match against red phosphorous. His anxiety sparked just as bright. They both waited for her say what Thomas thought her face was saying, but all that she said was what George was going to say.
“Take the guest room. Second door on your right,” She continued to eat her steak and sip her wine.
“Don’t worry about your plate Thomas,” George followed up with saying. He smiled and Thomas nodded, then excused himself and walked from the dining room table to the stairs. Before he took the first step, he looked at both of them.
“Thank you,” he said. Only George nodded and smiled before he cut into his steak again. Kristen remained silent, sipping her wine and she didn’t turn around toward him.